Shashlik – my take on Russian Lamb Kebabs

We often think of bands, athletes, and movies as underrated, we could also put some foods in this grouping. I’d say that most offal is underrated. Pudding definitely. It’s so underrated, restaurants are calling it budino to gussy it up. Lamb is undoubtedly underrated. In the US, it only gets mentioned after the Big Three of beef, pork, and chicken. Lamb should get a lot more meat-centric love than it does. It’s not one of the first animal proteins the average eater goes for, but they should. For lamb’s flavor is uniquely its own; rich, bold, and with a gaminess that is alluring and distinctive. Lamb is awesome.

Imagine my surprise and appreciation when the American Lamb Board came calling. They asked me if I’d like to have at a big hunk of lamb for a challenge to food bloggers. Sign me up. The challenge was this; take five pounds of leg of lamb, make kebabs of it, and tell the story. At stake; a whole lotta lamb. Next up for me; what recipe to make with it.

Kebabs. This was the mandate. Skewered meat with piercing flavor. My inspiration for preparations weren’t firing, so I asked around for ideas. The answer came from my SO’s family; ‘That’s easy. Why don’t you do shashlik?’ Sure! What’s shashlik? Their background is Russian, so they went into family dinners growing up and how shashlik was one of their favorite things. I’m intrigued, tell me more. They went into their Baba’s version of the recipe; how it could feed a crowd, that it’s a simple recipe that yields great results, so good that there are no leftovers. Sold. Shashlik it is.

Here are three cool things about Shashlik and how to make it:

  • Regional uniqueness

As I’ve been researching shashlik, I noticed that it varied regionally. Kind of like chicken adobo from the Philippines or fried chicken in the American South; it all starts from a familiar base, but one could find all sorts of different twists and turns with it. While a traditional Russian dish, shashlik has been tweaked in areas such as Ukraine, Estonia, and Caucasus. For Ukraine, in lieu of traditional vinegar in the marinade, they substitute pomegranate juice. For Estonia, one can find pork is used and a hit of sugar to it. For my take on it, I wanted to go with what was a family recipe, to continue the legacy that they held.

  • Tie to family history

I thought about this dish after talking about it with my SO. After asking her dad and aunts about it, they each had their own take on shashlik. Interesting that two sisters and one brother from the same mother each had different ways of making shashlik. What’s great is that each had its own merit. Neither was wrong. Each was right in its own way.

For example, the SO’s father called for dried dill and lots of garlic. Her aunt said lots of fresh dill and no garlic. The other aunt called for a bottled vinaigrette as a handy shortcut. The thing is they each had their own spin and recollection to the dish. Which is great. Much like a riff on a guitar, this dish molds itself to the person making it. Have fun with the dish and play around with the latitude.

  • Easy to make

Here is the recipe and it’s quite easy and virtually fool proof


Serves 4-6

1 onion, roughly chopped
5 cloves of garlic, smashed
2 T Penzey’s Tsar Dust Memories
5 lbs boneless leg of lamb, cubed into the size of a golf ball
1/2 C white wine vinegar
2 C olive oil
2 solid handfuls of dill, chopped

Salt & Pepper

Note: I decided to add a bit of Penzey’s Tsardust Memories, a seasoning blend from the good folks at Penzey’s. I thought the flavors in it blended well with the other flavor agents and added a nice complex layer. If you don’t have it try a dash or two of garlic powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and marjoram. Another good seasoning mix that could work might be Cavender’s, it also seems to be easily found in grocery stores.

  1. Take all of your mise en place of cut vegetables and put them into a Ziploc plastic bag or other carrying vessel that can be sealed
  2. Pour olive oil and vinegar into marinating bag
  3. Add Tsardust and salt and pepper
  4. Take a taste of the marinade, adjust seasoning if necessary. What you’re looking for a is a bold, tangy, and layered flavors. No one ingredient should stand out, rather they should meld with each other.
  5. Place the cubed lamb into the marinating bag. Massage the marinade into the lamb, seal bag and put in the fridge overnight.
  6. When ready to cook, take out of fridge and start up your grill.
  7. Let the grill preheat for 10-15 minutes to medium-high heat. Make sure grates are clean.
  8. Skewer the meat on your skewering device of choice. Place the chunks of meat close to each other, but don’t feel you have to crowd.
  9. Place the skewers on to the grill and turn frequently, allowing grill marks to hit the meat.
  10. Take care to not overcook the meat, the kebabs should be done in 8-10 minutes. You’re looking for medium rare
  11. Enjoy.

As for sides, my SO’s family traditionally serves shashlik with grilled skewered vegetables and wild rice; long grain or wild rice (or both) would fit the bill. For the vegetables, make a smaller portion of the marinade and put a selection of cut vegetables in a marinating bag for kebabs. I like cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and zucchini amongst others. When making the wild rice, use chicken or vegetable broth in place of water to add more flavor. But you’re welcome to be creative with your starch, mashed or roasted potatoes would be fine too.

And if you’re interested in building out a completely Russian themed dinner, consider making a few other accoutrements to go with shashlik. We had cold borscht with a cucumber base as an appetizer and blintzes for dessert. We also took the opportunity to visit a Russian grocery store in Seattle to purchase some Georgian wine, a Russian eggplant spread, and some pickles to compliment our meal as well.

There you have it. My take on Russian Shaslik sprouting from a known cultural foundation. It’s fun to know that with a huge hunk of lamb, you can have a dish that can serve a crowd; and with the summer grilling season upon us, it’s also nice to have an alternative to the meat trifecta of beef, pork, and chicken. It’s your turn to add your spin, marinate, season and grill.

For more fun with lamb, Bill the Butcher‘s Redmond shop is having a Butcher vs. Chef Kabob-off on July 24. August is American Lamb Month at all Bill the Butcher shops. Also exciting is the Seattle stop of the Lamb Jam Tour at Bell Harbor Conference Center on Sunday 10/23 from 3-6pm. See ewe there.

One thought on “Shashlik – my take on Russian Lamb Kebabs

  1. Your Russian meal sounds really good. I love doing a whole meal with an ethnic theme that people haven’t tried before…it makes for an interesting dinner party.

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