Growing up, when my two best friends and I seemed to spend entire summers basking in the sun all day in Beirut, Lebanon, our favorite hangout at the end of almost every day was Al-Basha Restaurant on Bliss Street by American University, which sold the best Sheesh Tawook sandwiches in town. We were 16 years old and after hours of basketball practice, we would each devour two or three of these delectable grilled chicken sandwiches just to replenish our energy and fill our empty stomachs.
Simply put, Sheesh Tawook is grilled marinated skinless, boneless chicken with garlic aioli in pita-bread. The base of the marinade is garlic, vinegar, and canola oil, but every household seemed to have its own variation on that theme. Lemon juice replaced vinegar; olive oil was substituted for canola; fresh versus dried Za’atar was added to infuse more flavor (my mother’s favorite), and yogurt or labneh added a certain tanginess, etc. The meat was mainly chicken legs for their flavor and juiciness as the flavors from the marinade seemed to compliment the natural flavor of the dark meat. People also grilled chicken breasts and tenders, but were not as popular.
The Sheesh Tawook sandwich that my friends and I ate came with a form of garlic aioli (spread on the bread under the meat), a classic accompaniment to grilled chicken in Lebanon. Garlic aioli can be as simple as a mashed garlic and canola oil emulsion finished with extra virgin olive oil, otherwise known as toom (the word for garlic in Arabic), or any Mayonnaise-base classic aioli. My mother used to boil a small potato then peel and smash it before mixing it with the mashed garlic prior to making the emulsion. It added a nice silkiness to the aioli and softened the harshness of the garlic. I add Mayonnaise to the potato-garlic mix for creaminess. For variation, the sandwich occasionally included some pickled cucumbers for added flavor. I always felt the pickles took away from the pure chicken and aioli flavors, especially if the chicken was cooked right (not dried on the grill), there would be no need to add anything. Just chicken and toom, the quintessential Sheesh Tawook sandwich!
Rose is my wine of choice with this light summer fare. My favorite roses are Pinot Gris roses from the Reuilly appellation in the Loire Valley and Chateau Musar or Chateau Kefraya roses from Lebanon. A smooth, cold lager will also do the trick. Bonne Appetit!
10-12 garlic cloves, mashed, or enough to make 1 tbsp
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. honey
1 scant tsp. pomegranate concentrate
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/3 cup canola oil
2 tsp. dried oregano or 1 tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, chopped.
1 tsp New Mexico chili powder (optional)
2.5 lbs (or 12) skinless, boneless chicken legs
5-6 garlic cloves, mashed, or enough to make ½ tbsp.
2 baby red potatoes or golden potatoes, boiled, peeled, and mashed
2 tbsp. Mayonnaise
3 tbsp. canola oil
Prepare the marinade. In a medium bowl, mix the first 5 ingredients. Keep whisking while slowly adding the oil. Add the oregano and the chili powder (if using). Put the chicken in a ziploc bag, add the marinade, and place the bag in the fridge for 4 to 24 hours.
Take the chicken out of the fridge half an hour before grilling. While the chicken reaches room temperature prepare the toom. Mix the first 4 ingredients then place in a blender or small food processor. Slowly add the oil at medium speed until you have a smooth silky emulsion. Place in a small bowl.
Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to 500 deg. F. Grill the chicken on one side for 3 minutes, then turn and grill the other side for another 3 minutes.
To serve, make a pocket in a loaf of pita bread, spread some toom on the bread, then add some chicken and eat. Alternatively, you can make a Panini or use your favorite bread to make a sandwich with the chicken and aioli.