Chicken Shawarma

Chicken shawarma is a Middle Eastern specialty served across the globe in endless variations. This recipe features roasted marinated chicken served with homemade tahini sauce, pita, and plenty of toppings.

Chicken Shawarma in a Pita Pocket Next to a Bowl with Lemon Wedges and a Plate with More Chicken and Tahini Sauce

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

When I think of shawarma, I envision a large vertical spit slowly rotating and coated with juicy, flavorful meat in a cone-like shape. The meat's exterior is browned and crispy and shaved off into thin strips for serving. But in recent years, and with the advent of globalization, shawarma has transformed into a myriad of unique dishes, each with its own twist. 

Traditionally a Middle Eastern meat-based food sold in shops, it's not uncommon nowadays to find eclectic spins on the original, such as vegan "cauliflower shawarma" and "chicken shawarma hummus bowls" or "shawarma poutine." 

All About Chicken Shawarma 

Chicken shawarma's ingredients, method, and style vary from region to region. Usually, the chicken marinates in spices and an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or yogurt. The chicken can marinate for as little as one hour, up to overnight. While this shawarma recipe doesn't use the traditional technique of a vertical spit, it's inspired by the flavors of the original dish.

  • Chicken thighs: Here, we use boneless skinless chicken thighs because they roast quickly in the oven without drying out. 
  • Extra-virgin olive oil: Oil adds moisture to the marinade and the resulting chicken. 
  • Spices: Chicken shawarma typically uses a mix of warm earthy spices. I marinate the chicken in a blend of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cumin, cardamom, and garlic powder. This might seem like a lot of spices, but that combination helps develop a complex, balanced flavor. Smoked paprika is an optional ingredient but often brings color to the chicken. 
  • Lemon juice: Lemon juice helps cut the deep earthy flavors of the spices, bringing a bright, tangy flavor to the chicken. If marinating the chicken for more than two hours, reserve the lemon juice and add it to the marinade two hours before cooking. Otherwise, the lemon juice can denature proteins in chicken, leading to an unpleasant, mushy texture. 
Plate with Chicken Shawarma Pita Pockets

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

A Short History of Shawarma (Shawerma)

Shawarma's origins hail from Turkey, where the technique of grilling meat on a vertical stack produced the doner kebab. That technique made its way to other regions of the Middle East, adapting and changing to fuse with the local culture, eventually leading to the creation of shawarma as we know it. 

Traditional Elements of Shawarma

As I set out to develop a recipe for chicken shawarma, I wanted to learn more about the dish's history. I scanned my own memories to concoct a basic set of ingredients but noticed many differences across street food carts, fast-casual restaurants, and traditional dining. Some versions featured thick, puffy pita, while others wrapped the meat in a thin flatbread. At Taim, a fast-casual restaurant I frequented in New York City, I recalled picking out a rainbow of sauces and condiments, from harissa to amba (a tart, pungent mango-based sauce) to tahini sauce. 

To better understand some of these distinctions, I spoke to a few friends from different regions of the Middle East who grew up with shawarma. 

  • The pita: Doaa Elkady, a Cairo-born New York City-based photographer and co-founder of Spice Tree Organics, told me that Arab countries typically serve the meat "in a large, thin, pliable flatbread that can be wrapped and sliced, rather than served in thick pockets." The benefit, here, is that the thinner texture of the bread, typically known as shraak, markouk, or khubz arab, “allows you to get plenty of toppings and meat in every bite." On the other hand, shawarma in Israel often features a soft, thick pita and less frequently a thinner flatbread called laffa
  • The sauces: Tahini sauce (usually a mix of tahini paste, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt) and toum (toumeya), (a creamy, pungent garlic-based sauce) are the two most common sauces across these regions. But Doaa notes, "Now you can find sauce options ranging from white sauce to yogurt sauce to dakkous (a spicy tomato sauce) to shatta (hot sauce)." Shani Litwin and Itai Hadari, two Israeli shawarma enthusiasts, informed me that in addition to tahini, amba, and schug (hot sauce) are common pairings.
Plate with Chicken Shawarma Pita Pockets

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

Ways to Cook Chicken Shawarma

Though this recipe calls for roasting shawarma in the oven, there are several options for cooking the chicken:

  • Oven-roasted: Oven roasting yields juicy chicken thighs surrounded by a pool of flavorful, spiced chicken fat. The chicken can roast on the 'convection roast' setting for a slightly crispier exterior (and a faster bake) or the standard 'bake' setting; both yielded moist interiors in testing.
  • Stovetop: You can sauté the marinated chicken on the stovetop for a quicker weeknight dinner. If attempting this method, cut the chicken into thin strips before marinating. 
  • Grill: Skip the oven and stovetop, and try grilling the chicken for a crispy, charred exterior. 

Tips and Tricks for Making Shawarma

This recipe is flexible, so you can make it work on a weeknight or prep ahead of time for a dinner party. To ensure a successful dinner, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Keep the chicken in its juices: Don't throw away the pool of liquid rendered from the chicken fat. You can spoon some onto the chicken before serving, ensuring it retains all of that delicious flavor. 
  • Broil the chicken for additional browning: On its own, roasting the chicken won't yield a crispy, browned exterior. After the chicken bakes at 425°F, you can broil it for 1-2 minutes to brown it further.
  • Warm your pita: A warmed, slightly toasty pita can make the dish all the more enjoyable. Wrap your pita bread in aluminum foil and place in a 350°F oven for 5 to 10 minutes until warmed through. Keep the warmed bread wrapped in foil or a dishcloth before serving.
  • Use ample sauce: Thicker pitas will need more sauce (and filling) to cut through the breadiness. If the wrap tastes "bready," try adding more tahini sauce. 
Plate of Chicken Shawarma with a Bowl of Tahini Sauce

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

Swaps and Substitutions

  • Swap the lemon juice for 1/4 cup of yogurt, especially if you're marinating the chicken overnight. Yogurt is gentler on chicken than lemon juice and can handle an overnight marinade. 
  • Instead of making the spice blend from scratch, you can purchase a shawarma spice blend (I like Spice Tree Organics blend) or Lebanese seven spice. These blends are incredibly flavorful and save you a lot of time!

How to Serve Chicken Shawarma

There are so many ways to serve shawarma and so many delicious toppings to serve it with. Instead of serving shawarma in a pita, you can also serve it with rice or a salad. Here are a few of our other favorite pairings and toppings:

  • Sliced lettuce and tomatoes
  • Tangy cabbage salad, fattoush, or tabbouleh 
  • Onions, cucumbers, and herbs
  • Pickled cucumbers and pickled turnips

Sauces: And of course, a good tahini sauce is essential. The recipe provided (adapted from Michael Solomonov) is nutty and slightly tart, a perfect pairing for the chicken. Toum/toumeya, amba, and hot sauces are great options. 

This recipe makes a large batch of chicken, enough for 6 to 8 people, ideal for entertaining. You can marinate the chicken, prep any sauces and sides the night before, and then roast the chicken just before your guests arrive. 

Plate of Chicken Shawarma, Next to a Bowl of Tahini Sauce, a Plate with Pita Bread, Bowl with More Chicken, and Small Dishes with Herbs and Lemon Wedges

Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

Chicken Shawarma

Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Marinating Time 60 mins
Total Time 105 mins
Servings 6 to 8 servings

If marinating the chicken for more than 2 hours, reserve the lemon juice and add it into the marinade two hours before cooking.

Ingredients

For the chicken marinade

  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 1 tablespoon garlic, grated

  • 2 teaspoons sea salt

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs

  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola

For the tahini sauce

  • 3/4 cup tahini paste

  • 1 medium clove garlic, grated

  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt

  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/4 cup water

  • 2 lemons, juiced

To serve

  • Pita bread

  • Lettuce, chopped

  • Tomatoes, chopped

  • Lemon wedges

Method

  1. Marinate the chicken:

    In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic, salt, olive oil, garlic powder, paprika, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, and black pepper. Nestle the chicken thighs in the marinade and use your hands (or tongs) to ensure the chicken is evenly coated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least 1 hour, up to overnight.

    Bowl of Marinade for Chicken Shawarma

    Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

    Chicken Marinating in a Bowl for Shawarma Recipe

    Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

  2. Make the tahini sauce:

    Meanwhile, prep the tahini sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini paste, garlic, salt, cumin, and 1/4 cup of lukewarm water. As you begin whisking, you may notice the mixture begin to seize up, but don’t worry it will smooth out over time.

    Next, add 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, and whisk until smooth. At this point, you can taste and adjust the mixture as needed. If it's too thick but tart enough, add a bit more water. If it could use more acidity, add more lemon juice. Once satisfied, cover with plastic wrap and place the tahini sauce in the fridge. 

    Remove tahini sauce from the fridge and bring to room temperature before serving.

    Tahini Sauce in a Bowl with a Whisk for Chicken Shawarma

    Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

  3. Arrange oven racks, preheat oven, and prepare baking sheet:

    Set a rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425°F. Line a large 18 x 12-inch baking sheet (or two 9 x 13-inch baking sheets) with aluminum foil. Using your hands, evenly spread the neutral oil all over the foil.

  4. Roast the chicken:

    Transfer chicken from marinade to baking sheet using tongs, drizzling any leftover marinade on top. Bake for 25 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken registers 175°F (the higher temperature yields more tender chicken). Rotate the pan 180° halfway through cooking to ensure even roasting. Remove chicken from the oven and set aside to rest for 5 minutes.

    Chicken on a Lined Baking Sheet for Chicken Shawarma Recipe

    Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

  5. Warm the pita:

    Lower the temperature of your oven to 350°F.

    Wrap the stack of pita bread in aluminum foil to form a sealed packet and place in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes until warmed through. Keep the warmed bread wrapped in foil or a dishcloth before serving.

  6. Slice the chicken:

    While still warm, slice the chicken into thin strips, and transfer to a platter, drizzling some of the pan juices on top.

  7. Serve: 

    Serve chicken alongside lettuce, tomato, lemon wedges, tahini sauce, and warm pita.

    Did you love this recipe? Give us some stars below!

    Plate of Chicken Shawarma with a Bowl of Tahini Sauce, Surrounded by a Plate with Pita Bread, Bowl with More Chicken, and Small Dishes with Herbs and Lemon Wedges

    Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
563 Calories
32g Fat
34g Carbs
43g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
×
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6 to 8
Amount per serving
Calories 563
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 32g 41%
Saturated Fat 6g 31%
Cholesterol 173mg 58%
Sodium 1117mg 49%
Total Carbohydrate 34g 12%
Dietary Fiber 7g 24%
Total Sugars 5g
Protein 43g
Vitamin C 71mg 357%
Calcium 152mg 12%
Iron 5mg 27%
Potassium 921mg 20%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.