Most people from the former USSR are very familiar with shashlyk. The smoky, slightly charred on the outside, succulent on the inside, marinated pieces of meat cooked on skewers over open coals, was something of a special occasion recipe. Family visiting from out-of-town? Grill up some shashlyk! Dear friends over for a dinner party? Shashlyk! Serving up hunks of choice meats is certainly a symbol of a kind of primal hospitality that appeals to appetites in many cultures.
In the USSR, shashlyk was primarily the specialty of the Caucasus region – Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and certain southern parts of Russia – although the concept of shashlyk is as old as time itself. In the USA, it was made popular by Middle Eastern immigrants and is typically known as kebab or shish-kebab.
Shashlyk is very versatile and can be made using many different types of meats and marinades. The meat can range from pork (most popular in the Caucasus), to beef, lamb and sometimes fish – sturgeon shashlyk was not unheard of in Azerbaijan. The marinades also vary from culture to culture and can include various spices and sauces.
Last weekend, when I made my first batch of shashlyk ever (thanks to my husband’s valiant effort at cooking without the comfort and security of a grill grate for the first time!), I used my mom’s shashlyk “marinade,” which consists of two things: lots of ONION and lots of TIME.
The ingredients are simple:
1) MEAT!! – In our family we typically use pork and I believe that the onion marinade works best with pork. Not just any cut will do, though – the key to selecting a suitable cut of meat for shashlyk is that it be a juicy cut with a reasonable amount of dark meat and fat. Now, normally, I can’t stand fatty meats. But in this case, the meat gets slightly charred, and the fat keeps it from getting dried out. I used a pork shoulder roast – it had the perfect kind of “marbling” for this recipe. Cut the meat into roughly 2in pieces and set aside.
2) ONION (yellow or white) – cut in half and sliced thinly. The onion to pork ratio is 1:1 – 1lb meat to 1 whole onion.
3) Salt and pepper to taste
4) THREE DAYS’ TIME
Mix the chunks of meat and the onion, salt and pepper, in a glass bowl. Now, mash the mixture with your hands, crushing the onion as you go and really working the onion juices into the meat. Cover and leave in the refridgerator. The next day, take the meat out and give it another mix-and-squeeze. Same thing on the third day, before you cook it.
That’s it. The idea is that over three days’ time the onion continuously lets out its juice, simultaneously flavoring and tenderizing the meat. Hence, you need a lot of onion and some time to let it do its job. It sounds very simple, but is indeed a very effective marinade, rendering the meat very tender and flavorful.
For the grilling you will need flat skewers – this assures that the meat turns evenly when you flip the skewer during cooking. Skewer the marinated pork chunks onto the skewers (clean off all the onion).
Heat up your coals like you would normally, but take the grate off the grill. Depending on the length of your skewers and the diameter of your grill top, you may be able to just lay the skewers on the edges across the grill, or use some bricks to prop them across. The grill grate is not used because the pressure from the grate is likely to squeeze the moisture out of the meat – you want it in!!
Cook the meat for a total of about 15 minutes, flipping every couple of minutes, for a bit of a “rotisserie” effect. You will notice it start to brown and even char a bit in fatty spots – that’s okay!! It’s part of shashlyk’s unique taste and character. When the meat is cooked, take it off the grill, and remove from the skewers using a bread bun. It will be tender, juicy and flavorful.
The suggested serving of shashlyk is traditionally with rice pilaf, good tandoori bread and a tomato/cucumber salad or eggplant caviar, as I did. Also, a sprinkling of fresh cilantro, and sumac is always a nice touch.