Mustafa’s Turkish Chicken Shish Kebab
Given you are exploring this website, I imagine you probably agree with the idea that ‘food transports you to a different place’ – and if you haven’t already experienced it, hopefully these recipes and stories will help you do just that. I believe that food really can transport you, and for me, this recipe especially transports me to a wonderful place and time in my life that I truly miss.
I was born in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, and grew up there for the first 11 years of my life, experiencing both the good years and the war towards the end before my family (my parents, older brother and I) sought refuge in Jordan. My childhood in Iraq was spent predominantly at our large home, living with my family, grandparents and uncles and their families.
Growing up I began to learn more about my family. My mother is from Northern Iraq and has a Turkish grandmother, so my mother’s family’s traditions were very different to my father’s side. I remember driving up into the hills towards my grandparents in Northern Iraq and the air just feeling different; it almost has no live city and it’s filled with mountains, rivers and beautiful nature. We used to refuel our water supply from a cold and clean river near my mother’s old house. The language is also different, my mother’s family could speak and understand Turkish very well, and most of their slang is influenced from Turkey.
Which leads me to the point of experiencing the food from both ends, traditional ‘Baghdadi’ food is beautiful but Northern Iraq was a lot more unique, in cases such as this recipe – my grandmother’s favourite dish.
I believe the 11 years I spent in Iraq have played the greatest role in shaping me to be the person I am today. They were some incredible years, filled with laughter and joy and family. My father’s whole family was centred in an area, close to everyone, and we would spend our days in each other’s houses, learning from all my uncles and aunties, growing up with all my cousins… They’re the sweetest memories I can recall.
Some people think the war period/years must have been traumatic and damaging to my childhood, and in some ways, there absolutely were some horrible moments. The American invasion into Iraq in 2003 led to the deaths of more than 170,000 Iraqi casualties. We lost a lot during the war.
Imagine being a child who attends school and has a best friend, visits his family quite often, lives a normal life, then one day everything just stops, and you find yourself stuck in a bunker with the rest of your family, in a darkly lit room, wearing a gas mask and listening to old Arabic songs as your mother tries to hold headsets over your ears so you don’t hear all the bombings going on close to our house. And that was that, that was the life we lived for 6 months, not knowing what might have happened to my friend, losing an uncle during the bombing, seeing the emotional suffering my parents had as they desperately tried to communicate with their extended family to see if they were okay, only to be welcomed with the sound of a dead telephone line. It was the toughest period in our lives. But there was also a significant silver lining beneath it all.
Soon after, my family decided to flee illegally by car to seek refuge in Jordan. Jordan at the time, and to this day, is one of the most accepting countries in the Arabic realm. At the end of last year (2019), the number of refugees registered in Jordan stood at 744,795 persons (UNHCR figures), among them are refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and more.
As we settled in Jordan for 5 years, we adapted to a different way of living, and under the UNHCR, they continued to provide us with education, health and cash assistance to help us with our re-settlement. Then an opportunity came up to migrate to Australia and live with our uncle who had been here for over two decades. So we packed up and moved to Sydney.
With meat supplies becoming harder to attain with war time restrictions, I don’t remember having this dish regularly, but that’s what made it so special. Its rarity created such vivid and surreal memories and they remain with me. I can still summon up the taste of this mouth-watering shish kebab that my mother made back in those days and when we have it now, memories of family in Baghdad and northern Iraq, of people and places, come flooding back.
This shish kebab recipe is also quite unique and special. My mother grew up in Iraq but her mother is from Turkey, so she learnt her incredible kebab recipe from my Turkish grandmother, and added a few Iraqi twists to it. I can still remember the funny arguments and heartwarming stories exchanged over lunch with this dish. And for me that’s what food is all about: It’s about your own heritage, but also about being able to live a little in someone else’s shoes… So I invite you to join me on this virtual iftar and experience this Turkish/Iraqi dish for yourself, and be absolutely mesmerised.
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Whisk yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, ketchup, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, cumin, black pepper, paprika, and cinnamon together in a bowl.
Place chicken thigh halves into the yogurt marinade and coat them thoroughly on all sides. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 to 8 hours.
Preheat an outdoor grill for medium-high heat and lightly oil the grate.
Using 2 skewers for each kebab, thread half of the chicken thighs onto each pair of skewers making a fairly thick “log” shape.
Place kebabs on grill. Do not try to turn them until they begin to unstick from the grill, 3 or 4 minutes. Turn kebabs and grill the other side 3 or 4 minutes; turn. Continue cooking and turning until chicken is no longer pink in the center and the juices run clear, about 6 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read at least 165 degrees F (74 degrees C).