Cooking Connections: Southern Fried Chicken Meets Shish Tawook

Teressa P.

Food fusion and memories

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Shish with rice and other sidesPhoto by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

If you’re like me and you’re fighting the over 40 battle of the bulge, you’re constantly trying to find recipes and tips to make healthy food tastier and more appealing.

In my quest to jazz up chicken breasts, I remembered one of my favorite Philly food memories, Saads on 45th Street. When I was pregnant (almost 18 years ago), I would waddle there and order the chicken shish tawook sandwich. It was always served on fresh, warm, pillow-soft pita bread that had just enough of his magical garlic sauce and grilled onions. Back then, I didn’t know it was a Halal restaurant, I just knew that it was really good food and it still is.

I looked up online recipes for shish tawook and discovered there were different versions. One was cinnamon based and the other used paprika. I wasn’t sure what Saads used and I didn’t have all the spices from any of the recipes, so I settled for plain pan-fried (oven finished) chicken breast. I didn’t have any buttermilk to marinate my chicken but I had plain, whole milk yogurt and OMG it was THE best chicken breast I ever had. It was so moist and tender. I used Chef Samin Nosrat's method from her Netflix show, Salt Fat Acid Heat.

I tried to recreate the same result roasting buttermilk marinated chicken thighs using shish tawook spices, but I didn’t fully follow the recipes. It was just ok, but a little better the next day. I have a problem following recipes. I blame my Grandmother, Janie who never measured anything. She was the best cook and she only relied on her senses to guide her recipes.

Pop's perfect fried chicken secret: listen to the grease...

She and my Grandfather aka Pop were magical in the kitchen. She used her hands to mix and determine the right texture for pie crusts and biscuits. She mashed potatoes and beat cakes by hand. She looked and listened to how sauces and stews bubbled and smelled and tasted every dish to determine if and when it was “just right”.

To this day, Pop’s sweet potato pie is the best (sorry Miss Patti). He also whipped the filling by hand and made them in 15 minutes. They had the perfect smooth texture. It was creamy, but not dense or too sweet. It had just enough sugar, honey, and other secret ingredients to give the perfect symphony of fall flavors with light citrusy notes. I tried to recreate his pies for years and they were delicious -but they never compared to his. So, I developed my own recipe and started making Pop-inspired — plain and candied pecan sweet potato pies.

Over the years, in spite of my Grandparent’s best efforts, I never learned how to fry chicken or fish. One evening before my Grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse, he tried to teach me how to fry chicken. He said, “it ain’t natural for you [a Black woman] not to know how to fry chicken…” He slowly walked from his sickbed and sat patiently and showed me how to season and fry chicken in a cast iron pan.

He told me to listen to the grease and when it stopped popping and “hushed” it was telling me when to turn the chicken. I snuck and looked up a recipe, put on a timer and checked the temperature with a meat thermometer. He shook his head and said that every batch of chicken is different so his method was the most accurate. That night was one of my fondest memories of my Grandfather and that chicken was slama-lama-ding-dong.

I laugh and still tell people I have to turn in my Soul Sista stereotype card — because I still can’t fry anything except an egg. And the last time I tried to honor my Pop by frying a batch of chicken, I ended up with a soul food-related injury. Hot grease popped on my chest and my 2nd-degree burn looked like a chicken foot. I swear that was my Pop’s ghost telling me to “cover up” before I cook.

But back to the yogurt marinated chicken, I’m going to stay in my neo-soul- global fusion food lane and keep trying to perfect both yogurt marinated, pan-fried chicken and shish tawook. They both bring back great memories and can make new ones today.

I’m going to need some help with the shish tawook… Any suggestions on spice combinations?

Special thanks to:

My late Grandfather aka Pop - Robert Lee Asby

Saads Restuarant in West Philadelphia

Samin Nosrat

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My mission is to share informative stories with heart and humor about life through an intersectional lens.

Philadelphia, PA
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