After graduating from high school, I spent a few years in Calgary, Alberta—a melting pot of cultural diversity with a vast population of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern families. Living there, I was exposed to authentic flavors that until then had been mostly foreign to me. Such regular access to some of the most delicious food I’d ever tasted appealed to the foodie in me. Needless to say, I fell in love with the flavors of Levant, an area stretching across the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Each region offers their own bold and bright spin on familiar dishes, from refreshing salads and warm spices to delicious flatbreads and grilled mats. All are delicious in their own way.
It was in Calgary that I discovered shawarma (also called donar/donair or gyro, depending on the country), a Middle Eastern dish of thinly sliced meat stacked into a cone and grilled over a hot spit. As it cooks, the meat spins on a long, upright shaft. It is then ritualistically shaved off to order and piled high on plates or stuffed in pitas. And it tastes divine—deeply seasoned and incredibly tender, with tons of crispy grilled edges. Traditionally made from lamb, today’s shawarma can also be prepared with beef and poultry. (Though lamb has been, and probably always will be, my favorite.)
True shawarma is a sight to behold, and nothing tastes quite like the original. Preparing it isn’t very practical for home cooks who don’t have the proper equipment to roast it, let alone shave it directly from a vertical spit. For this recipe, I wanted to take the essential flavors and concept of shawarma and make it more accessible to the everyday cook. A butterflied leg of lamb lends a ton of surface area for the spice mixture to penetrate the meat with flavor and creates lots of crusty deliciousness, which gives it a similar texture to the spit-roasted cone. Not exactly authentic, and some purists may balk—but the flavor and texture are still incredible, and the home version is essentially comparable.
The sauce is inspired by Middle Eastern spicy herb relishes. Once again, each region lends their own spin, but the general idea is similar all over. These relishes provide an added layer of complexity and punch to the already bold tastes of the vast Levant area. Fragrant herbs and a hit of heat from hot peppers pair wonderfully with the cool and refreshing tang of buttermilk, and the flavor makes the meat just pop.
Have your butcher butterfly the lamb for you. From there, all you need to do is open it up like a book, marinate it, and then quickly grill it. Serve hot or at room temperature, drizzled with the dressing, alongside an array of fresh salads and warm pita bread.
Lamb Shawarma with Spicy Buttermilk Sauce
Prep time: 25 minutes, plus time to marinate
Cook time: 10 minutes
For the lamb:
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tablespoon ground cumin
½ tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (more if you like it spicy)
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ lemon, juiced
24–32 oz. leg of lamb, butterflied, trimmed of sinew and excess fat
For the sauce:
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and deveined
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup parsley
¼ cup cilantro
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup buttermilk, kefir, or yogurt
- Marinate lamb: Combine garlic, spices, salt and pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice. Rub all over the outside of the butterflied lamb. Marinate at least 2 hours at room temperature or up to overnight in the fridge.
- Prepare sauce: Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients except buttermilk into a thick paste. Next, add buttermilk. Taste and adjust salt and spiciness to your liking. Keep chilled. (You can make the sauce up to 24 hours in advance.)
- Cook lamb: Bring lamb to room temperature. Preheat grill to high. Grill lamb until deeply browned on the outside and cooked to your preferred level of doneness inside. Transfer to a cutting board to rest for 5–10 minutes. Slice thinly against the grain of the meat. Drizzle with sauce to serve.
Image from Briana Goodall.