For more than 3,000 years, kebabs have been a mainstay in cuisine in almost every culture from Japan to the Middle East. Here in the United States, this simple dish of meat, chicken, fish, vegetables or fruit skewered onto a stick is an easy alternative for summer barbecues and quick family suppers.
"Stick meat was probably the first culinary innovation after the basic notion of cooking stuff over fire," says Steven Raichlen, author of How to Grill, The Barbecue Bible and BBQ USA and host of Barbecue University on Public Broadcasting Service. "Virtually every grilling culture in the world has some form of kebab, from the Turkish shish kebab to Indonesia satay to French brochettes. It really is universal."
The number of accepted spellings for kebab -- or kabob or cabob -- speaks to the global reach of the skewer. The origin of the first kebab is generally traced back to the ancient Middle East (in Turkish, sis means skewer and kebab means roasted meat). In an area where fuel was scarce, the uniformly cut, small chunks of meat cooked quickly, while marinades kept the meat tender.
At the Kabob Hut in Towson, owner James Jadali makes his kebabs using the recipes his family brought from Iran. It's a recipe that has changed little in several thousand years.
"The story of the kebab is 3,000 years old," he says. "The king made the kebab for the people several times a year on special occasions, like to celebrate the Persian New Year."
While kebabs are now more like fast food in the Middle East than special-occasion fare, Jadali says that the use of Persian spices in the marinade, such as saffron and sumac, are key to preserving the flavors of those ancient festivities.
In his small restaurant, Jadali has perfected his technique. The meat -- lamb, chicken or beef -- is marinated fresh each day and threaded onto metal skewers. It is cooked slowly over a grill made of ceramic tiles that allows the meat to cook evenly without being flavored by an open flame.
"I use steel skewers because they catch the heat very fast," he says, noting that the heat from the metal skewers helps the meat cook evenly.
The same qualities that made kebabs appealing to nomadic tribes and Persian partygoers thousands of years ago make them appealing in today's kitchen. Kebabs are delicious, quick and healthful -- literally a meal on a stick.
"It's a healthy food with no fat," says Jadali of the kebab's popularity. "All the meat is fresh and has little fat or oil on it so it is good for health."
To prepare a good kebab, begin with pieces of meat and vegetables that are cut to about the same size to ensure even cooking (hard vegetables like potatoes can be parboiled for faster grilling), and if using fish, use varieties that are firm-fleshed such as tuna or shellfish.
If using bamboo skewers, it may help to soak them in water or wrap the exposed tips with tin foil to keep them from catching fire on the grill. If using metal skewers, invest in those with flat sides so that when the kebab is turned, the meat and vegetables do not spin. Or use two-pronged skewers commonly used in Asia. Lightly rubbing the skewer with cooking oil may help keep the meat from sticking to the stick.
One common problem with kebabs is overcooking. "When we Americans make shish kebab, you tend to alternate beef or lamb with, say, plum tomatoes, cubes of peppers, mushrooms, so they look pretty," says grill master Raichlen.
"But if you think about it, all those ingredients cook at a different rate. What the Turks do is put all their peppers on one skewer and all their onions on another skewer and all their lamb on another skewer, and they cook them separately so that each can be left on for the amount of time you need."
The variety of kebabs is limited only by the imagination of the cook. There are literally thousands of kebab creations to liven up any backyard summer gathering. While some may seek out the traditional delicacies from Iran, Turkey and parts of Asia, almost anything can be skewered and grilled, broiled or even baked in the oven.
Typically kebab meat is marinated before grilling to keep it juicy, but spice rubs and herbs are also part of the kebab tradition. Raichlen offers contemporary suggestions for adding flavor, such as placing fresh mint leaves between lamb on a skewer or skewering shrimp with basil leaves and sun-dried tomatoes.
Meat can even be threaded on branches of herbs, like rosemary. "Almost anything can be stuck on a stick and grilled," says Raichlen.
Cookbook author Alamelu Vairavan, a health-care professional whose passion is healthful cooking, reinvented the traditional Indian kebab into a more healthful incarnation that is perfect for summertime grilling. Vairavan says that kebabs are popular in Northern India, where meat is prevalent. In her books The Art of South Indian Cooking and Healthy South Indian Cooking, she translated the kebab technique into a version that encompasses the vegetables, legumes and spices of South India.
"Right now there's an abundance of vegetables that are available everywhere in the markets," she says, recommending a combination of zucchini, mushrooms, onions and yellow, red and green bell peppers marinated in Indian seasonings like turmeric and cumin.
Her kebab has added advantages: Turmeric is considered an anti-inflammatory and cumin is a good alternative to salt for those watching their intake.
"For people who like grilling outside, they always go for potatoes and corn and now we're trying to get the American public to enjoy more vegetables. You like grilling? Fix these different vegetables, marinate them ... and grill it to have with your steak or hamburger or whatever else you're grilling."
Cinnamon Grilled Peaches
4 large ripe freestone peaches
8 cinnamon sticks
8 fresh mint leaves, plus 4 sprigs of mint for serving
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
1 pint vanilla ice cream
Cut the peaches in half, running the knife in a circular motion around the peach to the stone. Twist the halves in opposite directions to separate them. Pop out the stone with a spoon and discard. Cut each peach half in half.
Using a pointed chopstick or metal skewer, make a starter hole in the center of each peach quarter (from outside to pit side). Skewer 2 peach quarters on each cinnamon stick, placing a mint leaf between each.
Prepare a glaze by combining the butter, sugar, bourbon, cinnamon and salt in a saucepan and boil until thick and syrupy, 5 minutes.
Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate.
Grill the peaches until nicely browned on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side, basting with some of the bourbon butter. Serve at once over martini glasses with scoops of ice cream. Spoon any remaining glaze on top and garnish with mint sprigs.
- Steven Raichlen, "BBQ USA" (Workman Publishing Co., 2003, $35)
Per serving: 348 calories; 4 grams protein; 19 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 44 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 59 milligrams cholesterol; 96 milligrams sodium
Chicken Kebabs (Sindhi Murgh Kebabs)
3/4 cup water (divided use)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
2 tablespoons brandy
1 pound ground chicken
1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 serrano green chiles, seeded and finely chopped
1 inch of fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
1 teaspoon garam masala (see note)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a bowl combine 1/4 cup of the water, the soy sauce, red chili powder and brandy. Set the sauce aside.
In a bowl combine the chicken, onion, green chiles, ginger, garlic, salt, red chili powder, coriander, cilantro and garam masala. Mix well. Divide into 8 equal portions. Roll into small round balls.
In a deep pan bring the remaining 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Add the kebabs to the water. Reduce the heat and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes on each side. The kebabs will begin to darken as they absorb the water. Remove the kebabs from the water and place on a paper napkin.
Heat a medium nonstick skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to it. Add the kebabs and saute until golden-brown. Add the sauce. Mix well and cook for another minute. Serve with mint chutney.
Note: Garam masala is available at Indian grocery stores, at www.namaste.com or other ethnic grocers online.
-- Monica Bhide, "Everything Indian" (Adams Media Corp., 2004, $14.95)
Per serving: 524 calories; 14 grams protein; 11 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 103 grams carbohydrate; 11 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 783 milligrams sodium
Beef Kebabs With Peanut Dipping Sauce
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup light soy sauce (divided use)
2 tablespoons granulated brown-sugar substitute (divided use)
2 tablespoons sugar substitute (divided use)
4 cloves garlic, pressed (divided use)
1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak, 1 1/2 inches thick, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup creamy unsweetened natural peanut butter
3/4 cup water
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 green bell pepper, cut into squares
1 red bell pepper, cut into squares
1 large onion, cut into wedges
In a shallow dish, combine half of the soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of the brown-sugar substitute, 1 tablespoon of the sugar substitute and 2 of the pressed garlic cloves. Add the steak and stir to coat. Let stand for 20 minutes, stirring once.
Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan over high heat, combine the peanut butter, water, lime juice, ginger, ground red pepper, the remaining half of the soy sauce, the remaining 1 tablespoon brown-sugar substitute, remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar substitute and the remaining 2 cloves pressed garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture boils. Remove it from the heat.
Coat a grill rack with cooking spray. Preheat the grill to high.
Thread the steak, peppers and onion onto 4 metal skewers. Place on the grill rack and cook, turning occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the steak is no longer pink, and a thermometer inserted in the thickest portion registers 160 degrees and the juices run clear. Serve with the peanut sauce.
Per serving: 481 calories; 23 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 46 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams fiber; 104 milligrams cholesterol; 863 milligrams sodium
-- Recipe and analysis from "The South Beach Diet Cookbook" by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale Books, 2004, $25.95)
Seasoned Vegetable Kebabs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 Idaho potato parboiled and sliced 3/4 inch thick
1 sweet potato parboiled and sliced 3/4 inch thick
2 zucchini, cut into 3/4 -inch slices
12 mushrooms, trim ends, keep it whole
2 onions, cut in 3/4 -inch slices
3 red or green bell peppers, cut in quarters
Combine olive oil, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, garlic powder and lemon juice. Coat parboiled and cut vegetables with the above marinade dressing.
Refrigerate for 1 hour. Working in batches, skewer the vegetables. Grill vegetables until tender. While grilling, brush the vegetables with the marinade dressing. Arrange on platter and serve.
- Alamelu Vairavan, "Healthy South Indian Cooking" (Hippocrene Books, 2001, $24.95)
Per serving: 207 calories; 5 grams protein; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 34 grams carbohydrate; 6 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 23 milligrams sodium