We’ve all had that experience of looking forward to a meal, biting in, and then…if it’s a happy ending you get an amazing taste miles beyond what you were expecting or you bit down and you didn’t order it hot…but suddenly everything burns. Spices can make a good meal amazing or when used poorly they can ruin the experience completely.
So what spices are found in kebabs? What can you expect to see? This will vary immensely depending on the style of kebab and regional influence, but there are many possibilities. Considering that kebabs are a popular and delicious dish that are very popular in many Mediterranean and Middle East regions, everything from mint and yoghurt to cinnamon and ginger can all be in play.
While spices for chicken kebabs often feature flavors such as ground cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger. The same spices are seldom used in every variation of kebabs or kebab mixes, but those are common ones that are often part of a spice mix, which can be different with each kebab shop.
Cumin, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and mint are among the most common spices for kebabs which are combined with each other or combined with local ingredients for a unique spice mix. These are some common spices that are likely to be found in many kebab shops.
Types of Kebabs – And the Spices They Use!
There are many different styles of kebabs and the type of kebab you’re eating, the style its made in, and the region of origin can all directly affect which spices are likely to be used versus which ones are not. For example, a skewer based kebab will almost certainly have various spices and pepper to season the meat while being very unlikely to have mint and far less likely to have a yoghurt blend.
While spices can greatly vary the flavor and taste experiences if you have a weak stomach or otherwise are worried about a particular spice, ask the kebab vendor what spices they use to get a better sense of whether or not the spices used by that particular vendor are going to provide a good or bad experience for your stomach.
Chicken kebabs are a popular choice due to their lean, tender meat. When it comes to spicing up chicken kebabs, the whole array of spices could be used because chicken is such a plain white meat which means it can take on the flavor of just about any spices used – and the taste will come through clearly.
While this means that there are many spices used on chicken kebabs, some of the most common chicken kebab spices include paprika, cumin, turmeric, and coriander. A marinade made from olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic can add a Mediterranean touch to the kebabs, or an Americanized version might just be lemon pepper, black pepper, and a bit of garlic salt.
The full array of spices are at play when looking at the spices commonly used with chicken kebabs.
Lamb kebabs are known for their rich, tender taste. Lamb meat might be cooked on skewer based kebabs, but shaved lamb is also one of the most common meats for Lebanese or Mediterranean style kebabs.
One common type of lamb kebab is kofta kebab, which features ground lamb mixed with onions, garlic, parsley, and local spices. Kofta kebabs often incorporate spices such as cumin, coriander, paprika, and cinnamon to create a tasty but mild flavor. Marinades with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic can also add flavor to lamb kebabs and if you are going with a Mediterranean style with pita bread you might have the kebab come with a mint dairy sauce.
Beef Kebab Spices
Beef is a pretty tasty red meat with strong flavor, meaning that seasoning is likely to be stronger as well. A mixture of spices including nutmeg, green cardamom, allspice, and paprika can enhance the flavors of beef kebabs and that is a mix that is pretty commonly found in use.
For kebab shops that don’t use a lot of spices or don’t like to, don’t be surprised if the beef kebab is something relatively simple like black pepper, salt, and a touch of allspice. Additionally, marinating the beef with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and red wine can create a Mediterranean-style variant.
Bolder flavors from garlic, hot peppers, or smoked paprika may also be included in the marinade depending again on the preference of the kebab shop owner and their in-house mixtures.
Common Spices and Marinades
When it comes to kebabs, the big difference between many kebab shops that even serve the same style of kebab is going to come because of the spices and/or marinades they decide to use. While there are many that use a pretty basic mixture or standard spice mix, each place may choose to add or subtract some spice to put their own twist on it.
While you’re not likely to get anything too outlandish, this is worth noting so you won’t be overly surprised if one spice mix just gives off a different flavor or taste than you are used to. This is especially true when yoghurt and citrus marinades come into the picture.
A personalized spice mix is just that: a series of spices often mixed together prior to application on any food. Many kebab shops are going to have their own specialty spice mix and the ingredients used, not to mention the amounts, can very immensely.
Just a small list of spices likely to be used in some house mixes include:
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Garlic powder
- Onion Powder
Certain spices will be more or less common depending on the style of kebab as Mediterranean style kebabs will offer different styles of spices compared to a Doner Kebab, Shish Kebab, or other Turkish or Middle Eastern inspired kebab. This is why there are so many spices listed – it’s because usage varies greatly depending on the style of kebab and where it is from.
A yogurt-based marinade is a common choice for kebabs, as it helps tenderize the meat and imparts a tangy flavor. Typical ingredients for a yogurt marinade include:
- Plain yogurt
- Garlic cloves, minced
- Onion, grated
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Spices, such as cumin, paprika, or ground coriander
- Fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, or dill
The combination of spices and herbs used in the marinade can be adjusted according to personal preference and the type of kebab being prepared, and depending on what is used can deliver some wonderful flavor profiles that changes your entire kebab eating experience.
Citrus marinades add a bright, zesty flavor to kebabs and are perfect for chicken and fish. A simple yet effective citrus marinade can include:
- Lemon or lime juice
- Olive oil
- Garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Spices, such as cumin, smoked paprika, or cayenne pepper (source)
- Fresh herbs, like parsley or oregano
As with yogurt marinades, the blend of spices and herbs can be tailored to taste and the specific type of kebab being grilled. By experimenting with these various spice mixes and marinades, you can create kebabs that are bursting with flavor and sure to impress your taste buds.
Semi-Related Article: If you’re interesting in infusing the flavors of Citrus, and love smoked meat (and who doesn’t?) check out our guide on Is Citrus Wood Good for Smoking Meat?
As I’ve hinted at a few times before, the style of kebab can vary immensely from one area to another and there are multiple regions that have their own version of kebabs. It should come as no surprise that the normal spices used for each type of kebab were based on what was traditionally available in each region and remains the same, or they will use spices that are similar in profile to the original ones used.
Mediterranean Kebabs encompass a wide range of flavors and ingredients borrowed from the surrounding Mediterranean countries. These kebabs often use extra virgin olive oil and feature a mix of spices like garlic, oregano and thyme. Sometimes referred to as Greek style kebabs, a lot of these feature lamb and come with pita bread, pocket bread, and a dairy based sauce with mind.
One popular Mediterranean kebab style is the Souvlaki which typically consists of marinated meat, such as pork or chicken, that is grilled on skewers alongside vegetables like roasted peppers and served with a side of tzatziki sauce.
Middle Eastern Kebabs
When it comes to Middle Eastern Kebabs, the options are vast ranging from Shawarma to Kofta kebabs. Shawarma is typically marinated in a complex spice blend, often including garlic, coriander, paprika and cumin, then slow-cooked on a rotating spit.
Kofta kebabs, on the other hand, are usually made with ground or minced meat mixed with a blend of spices and herbs, such as parsley and mint. The meat is formed into balls or logs and grilled on skewers. I have personally never had this type made by someone from the region but it sounds like something I would become instantly addicted to and never want to go without again.
Turkey is straight out famous for its Kebab culture, which it should be considering how many incredible types of kebabs hail from this region which includes various variations like the classic Şiş Kebap (skewered meat), Adana Kebap (spicy minced meat on flat skewers), and Urfa Kebap (less spicy minced meat on flat skewers).
Many kebab stands or shop owners in Turkey will proudly tell you Turkey was the first nation in the world to come up with the modern kebab. While this can’t be (as far as I know) confirmed, it wouldn’t surprise me based on how many delicious kebabs you can find from this very specific region.
Common spices used in Turkish kebabs include paprika, cumin, and red pepper, which create a rich, aromatic flavor profile. Beef and lamb are both very popular meats, and chicken is not uncommon.
Doner Kebab originated in the Ottoman Empire and has since become a popular Middle Eastern dish, spreading across Europe and beyond. In fact, Doner kebabs are among the most popular spreading throughout Europe and North America. While similar to Gyros and Shawarma in preparation, Doner Kebab is typically made using thinly sliced marinated meat, usually lamb, beef or chicken, that’s cooked on a vertical rotisserie.
This is the image that many of us have when we think of kebabs, and it’s the style that is spreading the most rapidly. The exact spices that are commonly used in Doner Kebabs can vary, but often include a mix of onion, garlic, cumin, cardamom and cloves. The cooked meat is then served in a wrap, on a plate, or with a side of salad and sauces, or in fast food kebab places, maybe even French Fries.
Nutritional Aspects and Health Benefits
A popular ingredient in kebabs is cumin, which is packed with antioxidants and has been linked to reduced inflammation and improved digestion. According to a scientific review on the role of spices in nutrition and health, cumin also aids in the absorption of nutrients by our body, which is a nice little bonus. Get a bit of extra nutrition with your kebab!
Another key spice in kebabs is paprika, a mild chili powder that provides a smoky taste. Apart from being a rich source of antioxidants, paprika contains a high concentration of Vitamin A which is crucial for eye health. Furthermore, research has shown that certain spices like paprika can potentially help lower blood sugar levels, as mentioned in this article on 5 Spices with Healthy Benefits.
When it comes to kebabs, coriander and turmeric are often used to enhance the flavor profile. These two spices are known for their potent anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric, in particular, has curcumin—an active compound that has shown promise in reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
Moreover, the boneless meat in kebabs is often marinated in a mix of spices, which can have additional health benefits. For instance, a healthy recipe of Spicy Chicken Kebabs at The Nutrition Source reveals that combining various spices can offer a diverse range of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
As a long time cook there’s no question that spices play a major part in how I produce many dishes, and when I have a dish that uses spices well, not too heavy handed, not too mild, I’m a happy eater. When that is done with kebabs, all the better!
Other Kebab Articles You May Enjoy