Lamb Shawarma

Joe's Lamb Shawarma

As told by Joe Arena

My dear friend recently visited for several glorious days. She seemed to especially enjoy this meal. It could have been ordered at any street corner joint in the Middle East. Then I remembered her ancestors… she comes from a culture where the Arabic worlds of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean meet.

The Arabic word “shawarma” means large blocks of meats—often lamb and sometimes chicken, turkey, beef, even veal. The meat is shaved into thin strips off a grilling spit and then accompanied by various toppings and vegetables.

While enjoying a glass of wine, my friend and I created a delicious and healthful version using just the stovetop and steaks of lean lamb, assorted flavors and spices. Collect and prepare the vegetables, sauces and garnishes first, then cook the lamb. Trust me, you’ll be eating this again and again.

After the recipe I offer a few words about couscous vs. quinoa. I switch between them and you might too, depending on your carb choice. The picture is shown with couscous.


1 ½ cup reduced sodium chicken broth

1 ½ cup couscous (or quinoa if you prefer)

1 medium carrot, shredded

½ cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup olive oil, divided

Zest and juice of 2 lemons

1 large onion, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 ½ lbs. fresh boneless lamb leg steak

2 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. lemon pepper (optional)

½ tsp. cayenne

½ tsp. each kosher salt and pepper

2 bunches broccolini, or other dark green vegetable, lightly steamed (optional)

Yogurt Tahini (recipe to follow)


Here’s how to cut the lamb leg steaks (or similar cuts): First, trim as much fat as possible. Cut each steak into 3 or 4 pieces, about 1 to 1 ½ inch in size. Lay each of these pieces on its narrow edge, and press down gently to thicken the slice. Cut each of these slices into 2 or 3 sections to yield fairly thin pieces.

Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add couscous, cover tightly, remove from heat and let sit 5 minutes. Uncover, fluff, and add carrot, parsley, 2 tbsp. oil, and zest and juice of one lemon. You can also use quinoa, following the cooking instructions on the box.

Cook onion in remaining 2 tbsp. oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until edges are charred, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, lamb, cumin, cayenne, lemon-pepper if you have it, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until lamb is cooked through, brown on outside and pink inside, perhaps 5 minutes.

Divide couscous (or quinoa) among four plates and top with lamb. Finish with yogurt-tahini sauce, a green such as broccolini, and more lemon zest and juice if desired.

Yogurt Tahini


1 cup plain Greek yogurt

3 tbsp. tahini

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp. chopped parsley

1 garlic clove, crushed

Salt to taste


Whisk all ingredients in a bowl until smooth. Add to the side of the shawarma plate. This sauce is also good with many different vegetables and meats.

Couscous vs. Quinoa

Couscous is made from semolina—granules of durum wheat cooked by steaming––quite similar to classic Italian pastas. It’s a staple of North African and Middle East cuisines, and my ancestral homeland, Sicily. It is popular even in France. The amount in this meal is fairly modest, but some eaters follow diets that strictly restrict carbs. If couscous oversteps that bound, cooks can substitute quinoa, a grain crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. First developed as food 3,000 years ago in the Andean region of what is now South America, it is closely related to species such as beetroots, spinach, and tumbleweeds. It is high in protein, and is growing in popularity with nutritionists. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations declared 2013 to be the International Year of Quinoa.

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