Souvlaki’s name derives from the medieval Greek for skewer, but grilling meat on sticks was a practice borrowed from Near Eastern Muslim cooks. As the Oxford Companion to Food notes, these days they are often made from “non-Islamic pork.” Often, but not always, you’ll find chicken and lamb versions (in fact, in Australia, where post-pub souvas are an institution, lamb is apparently the default).
But the consensus on Twitter seems to be that pork is the classic iteration in souvlaki’s homeland, though it’s consumed in vastly different ways depending on where you find it: wrapped in bread or on a plate; alone or with chips, salad, onion, pickles, herbs and a whole range of sauces; or just eaten straight off a spiky piece of wood on the side of the road. But what is the best way to do it at home?
The two most common cuts used in the souvlaki recipes I try are the tenderloin (usually called the fillet in this country) or the neck and shoulder. The latter, Belinda Harley points out in her book Roast Lamb in the Olive Groves, should have a little fat left “so it doesn’t dry out.” As a devotee of the fat-means-taste school of thought, I hope that the well-marbled chuck I try is far superior to the lean steak, and that the pork belly used by Tonia Buxton in Real Greek Cookbook is even better. But we decided that, quickly cooked over high heat, the tenderness of the steak wins us over. That being said, there is little to beat the flavor of good quality barbecued pork fat, so I have decided to use a combination of shoulder and fillet; the belly is a bit too rich, even for us.
Belinda Harley’s souvlaki uses ‘country bread’. Thumbnails: Felicity’s Cloak.
Harley cuts the meat into very small pieces for her mini kebabs, but if you keep them a bit larger they will stay juicier during cooking.
The simplest marinades come from Harley and Tessa Kiros’s Falling Cloudberries: lemon juice, oregano, and olive oil, with bay leaves on Harley, too. Georgina Hayden’s Tavern, which celebrates the food of her Greek Cypriot family, uses garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme, with red wine vinegar instead of lemon juice. Celebrity Greek chef Akis Petretzikis uses white wine vinegar and garlic along with olive oil and oregano. (He also throws in a chicken stock cube, which gives the meat a deliciously savory quality, though I prefer to let the salt do the seasoning, and let the pork do the talking.
Buxton’s recipe, as used at the Real Greek chain, is quite a different beast: the sticky, aromatic marinade of orange juice, honey, mustard, paprika, cinnamon, and fennel seed reminds us (not sadly) of Chinese roast pork instead of the souvlaki. This comparison is helped by the fact that it’s cooked in the oven, rather than on a grill, and thus lacks the charcoal that my testers say is vital for transport back to Greece.
Tonia Buxton’s recipe, as used at the Real Greek chain, is sticky and aromatic like Chinese roast pork.
Memories of Greek vacations also led me to decide on dried oregano, rather than Hayden’s fresh herbs, delicious as they are. My guinea pigs, one of whom eats a mostly vegetarian diet, rate them as more interesting, but say the oregano is what reminds them of Greece. We all love garlic though, so I’ll keep it and use lemon juice instead of vinegar, since you can squeeze the other half over the salad.
Some recipes, including Kiros’s, brush the marinade on the meat just before cooking, but you’ll get more flavor if you let it blend a little longer; however, I wouldn’t recommend more than three or four hours, lest the acid in the lemon juice begin to toughen the meat.
Hayden offers two suggestions for serving your souvlaki: “The more traditional Greek way, with fluffy round pitas, French fries, and mustard sauce” and “the Cypriot way: in oval pitas, with shredded cabbage and grilled olives.” iron”.
Intrigued by the mayonnaise-based mustard sauce and tempted by the fries, I opted for the former, but their creamy tzatziki is so good that most testers opt for that. “I’d have to alternate,” the deciduous vegetarian says through a mouthful of meat, “I can’t taste them both together.”
Akis Petretzikis is the only one who adds vegetables to the skewers.
Petretzikis is the only one that adds vegetables to the skewers, in the form of red onions and bell peppers. They’re a good pairing with charred pork – “like 80s home barbecue!” Martha says cheerfully, but they’re very much an optional extra. I find it easiest to serve the skewers with a tomato salad, perhaps with some thinly sliced red onion and chopped parsley, as most recipes recommend. (Like Kiros, I prefer to soak my onions for a milder flavor, but if you’re less of a wimp, feel free to skip this step.)
French fries are of course always a possibility, but bread is a must. Oval Arabic pittas are most widely available here, but if you’re lucky enough to have access to a shop that sells fluffy round flatbreads (I got mine from a Turkish greengrocer), they’re much easier to roll around meat, and better for soaking up the juices too. Or, if you’re more of the sourdough type, Harley suggests using slices of “country bread” as a plate.
The last word on souvlaki I leave to Hayden, a woman practically weaned from them: “Make sure you finish with a sprinkle of paprika.”
Homework 30 minutes
Soak 20 minutes
Cook 15 minutes
for the skewers
600g pork loin
200 g of pork shoulder
2 garlic clovespeeled and shredded
100 ml of olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon fine salt
½ red onionbare
4 large tomatoes
Juice of ½ lemon
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsleycoarsely chopped
200 g tzatziki
1 pinch of paprika
Cut the loin and shoulder into cubes of about 2×3 cm. Combine the crushed garlic, oil, lemon juice, oregano, and salt in a bowl large enough to hold all of the meat, then add the cubes and turn until well coated.
Cube meat and marinate.
Cover and let stand in a cool place for one to four hours.
Soak four wooden skewers in water, if using them.
About half an hour before you want to eat, cut the onion into very thin slices. For a milder flavor, put in a bowl of cold water and leave to soak for 20 minutes.
Soak red onions for a milder flavor.
Meanwhile, slice the tomatoes and place them on a plate. Season and sprinkle with lemon juice, then scatter with the drained onion and parsley.
Make a salad of tomatoes and red onion, and drizzle with lemon juice.
Prepare a barbecue or heat a griddle until smoking hot. Thread the meat onto the skewers, pushing it in so that no skewers are visible between the pieces. Grill on all sides until well browned and cooked through. Meanwhile, heat the flatbreads in another hot skillet or in a low oven.
Thread the marinated meat onto skewers and onto the griddle.
Sprinkle the skewers with paprika and serve with salad, tzatziki and bread.
Does souvlaki mean pork, chicken or lamb to you, or something even more exotic? How do you like to eat them, and where does the best version you’ve ever tasted come from?