The current crossover of cuisines from the Middle East to American menus brings with it a dilemma for writers of menus and food stories. Is that Levantine side dish properly spelled tabbouleh or tabbouli? Is the condiment zhoug or zhug? Perhaps it should be skhug? Or maybe s’chug? And apart from a vowel, what exactly is the difference between kebob and kebab? The reasons for virtually all of these variations lie in the vagaries of transliterating these names from their native tongue, often Arabic, to a local lexicon. In practice that means that most Europeans favor kebab, while we adopted the term kebob to refer to food on a stick. Or sometimes Kabob. (This publication prefers “kebab”).
Sticks and spits. We may, however, find ourselves comfortably using all of those terms thanks to the growth of concepts like The Kebab Shop, a 14-unit chain headquartered in Southern California. Founded by eight brothers and two sisters who turned the food from their family table into a thriving business, the menu features familiar grilled kebabs alongside less common döner kebabs. The latter are chicken, lamb or beef that is carved from large vertical spit and then tucked into a sandwich or put atop an entrée bowl or platter. Sides include saffron rice, falafel and tabbouleh.
Chicago’s Ēma, which is Hebrew for mother, and its adjacent, fast-casual Ēma Rotisserie offer specialties like lamb & beef or chicken kefta kebabs. Kefta, by the way, are meatballs that may also be spelled kofta, kofte or kefte. On the brunch menu, they’re plated with eggs, lemon-dill rice and Israeli salad, a bright, fresh mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and parsley. Ēma’s dinner menu includes king salmon or beef tenderloin kebabs, both of which are finished with skhug.
Picks and sticks. Long before the Eastern-Mediterranean trend, skewered offerings were standbys in foodservice kitchens. Smaller skewers and toothpicks are a practical means to serve finger foods at catered events, a good example of which are the popular kimchi arancini (pictured above) on the catering menu at The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas. Those are deep fried risotto balls with kimchi, mozzarella, parmesan and Sriracha. That restaurant also offers pumpkin and bacon skewers with dill, yogurt and duck fat.
Another example are the skewered mini corn dogs (left) served with a side of ketchup and IPA mustard at casual-dining chain Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, based in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Larger skewers offer restaurateurs the opportunity to control portion and cost while creating a satisfying and attractive dish, like the grilled shrimp scampi introduced at sibling chains Bonanza and Ponderosa as a special this spring. It includes two skewers of grilled shrimp over garlic-butter-sauced rice pilaf dusted with shredded Parmesan, more garlic butter sauce, a lemon wedge and kale garnish.
Sweets on sticks. Customers aren’t just picky about savory items; they’re also stuck on desserts and other confections. In Seattle, My Sweet Lil’ Cakes, which was a very early entrant in the food-truck trend, has an engaging menu of both sweet and savory hotcakes on a stick. The sweet stuff includes cherry-filled chocolate devil’s food cake with Nutella sweet cream cheese, Heath toffee crumble and fresh berries. On a somewhat more subdued note, there’s also a blueberry lemon ricotta cake with a drizzle of honey-lemon syrup. Moffle Bar in New York City marries waffles with mochi, sweet Japanese rice cakes, and bathes their creation in a dizzying array of toppings before serving them up on sticks for pure Instagram bait. Also in New York City, Olmsted taps into the retro trend and allows diners to cook the camp-fire favorite s’mores by providing all the fixings, including cubed marshmallows, skewers and a small pot of hot coals.
Looking ahead, operators will continue to experiment with the speared, the spiked and the skewered. Thai satays are due for reconsideration, Japanese yakitori and Greek souvlaki have yet to receive their due in the mass market and Peruvian anticuchos are ripe for discovery and invention.
And kebabs have nowhere to go but up. In addition to their on-premise practicality, they stand up well to travel, a critical advantage given the rapid growth of restaurant delivery services. In fact, Grubhub put chicken kebabs in the top three most popular items that the service will deliver to its customers this spring.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the U.S., she blogs regularly on food-related subjects at linkedin.com.