. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Marinade, Skewer, Grill: The Fine Art of Shashlik

In my family, shashlik was a team effort, with my mother doing most of the work and my father taking most of the credit. She bought the meat (invariably a leg of lamb), cut it up, marinated it overnight and even skewered it before passing it on to my father, who reigned over the glowing coals behind white picket fences in suburban New York.


To be fair, my father always played his part well, gently stoking the coals until he pronounced them just right, patiently turning the skewers so the meat browned evenly.


It was his job to determine when the meat was ready, a process that involved a good deal of sampling. He would even designate an official taster, an honorary title usually bestowed upon a guest, to help determine the precise moment the meat was ready for consumption.


The final step of preparation was again my father's responsibility -- slicing the grilled meat, peppers, onions and tomatoes off the skewers into the ritual clay serving pot. The dish was always lined with Armenian lavash -- much thinner and more malleable than the Georgian variety. The bread would soak up the juices of the meat and vegetables, producing what we called akhdot hatz, or dirty bread. The dirtier the bread, the more coveted the piece. In a special display of hospitality, my parents would dig into the bowl to procure the dirtiest pieces for guests.


While my father received the credit for the more public displays of preparation, the behind-the-scenes labor -- the tenderness of the meat and the flavor of the marinade -- was always my mother's handiwork, a fact that surprises many Russians who consider shashlik to be "a man's affair."


"Shashlik will not endure a woman's hands," said Igor Labanov, an experienced shashlichnik, from his favorite spot along the Moskva River. "It requires a man's creativity."


Labanov's words were echoed by a fellow practitioner of this Russian outdoor obsession, Viktor Ivanov.


"Take the freshest spring lamb, cut out 300 grams of the choicest meat, hand it over to a woman, and she'll spoil the shashlik anyway," said Ivanov, another self-proclaimed master of the Russian art of barbecuing.


"Women are used to preparing meals quickly -- they would only rush through the process. Shashlik requires patience."


On a recent sunny day along the banks of the river, there was at least one dissenting voice, saying, "I personally don't mind when women make shashlik. It means less work for me."


He added that the man-only rule probably originated in the Caucasus -- the birth place of meat on a skewer. "In the Caucasus women aren't allowed to do a lot of things, and it was a special sign of hospitality for the man of the house to prepare the meal."


Still others claim the very simplicity of the meal is what appealed to the manly masses.


"What is so special about shashlik? Sure, it tastes good, but it is so easy," said Sasha Melnikov, who was spending the day along the river with his friends. "You stop off at the market, get a hunk of meat, wine, and head for the river."


Whatever the reason, women can either take offense or sit back and watch the men do the work. This creative process begins at the market, where shashlichniki go to select the freshest meat.


"If you don't buy the best cut of meat, then what is the point?" said Labanov. "The best choice of all is the meat along the spine, where the muscles aren't at work. And it should be free of veins and not too fatty."


While lamb is most traditional for shashlik, any meat will do. Pork is a particularly popular option in Russia, but many also skewer chicken and sturgeon. Beef -- which tends to dry out -- is a less desirable shashlik alternative. Connoisseurs of shashlik tend to avoid roadside stands, where reports of marinated cat and dog abound.


Once the meat has been bought and butchered, the next step is the marinade, which allows for the greatest degree of creativity. Vinegar, wine and lemon juice -- alone or in some combination -- are the most traditional marinades, the acidity of which tenderizes the meat and makes it tangy. Some even add water to the marinade for a more subtle flavor.


"It all depends on your taste," said one Georgian specialist who referred to himself only as Volodya. Even though Georgians are reputed to be the greatest artisans of shashlik in the former Soviet Union, Volodya was not forthcoming with any recipes. "It is prepared na glaz," or by sight, he said, humbly shrugging his shoulders.


Those whose eyes do not know exactly what to look for can estimate a cup of liquid for each kilogram of meat. Lemon juice is particularly suited to pork, but lamb and beef are usually better enhanced by wine and vinegar. Be sure to add salt and pepper and mix with your bare hands -- it tastes better that way.


While marinades may differ, everyone agrees that sliced onions are a mandatory ingredient. Garlic is more controversial, however. There is a school of shashlik that favors a little garlic for aroma, while the majority of shashlichniki firmly believe a shashlik marinade is no place for the stinking rose.


More revolutionary marinades abandon the acidity of wine and vinegar for kefir, yogurt, or even sour cream. Some resourceful vinegar haters crush tomatoes into the meat instead of the sour brew.


The beauty of shashlik is that it can be prepared almost spontaneously. Although it is better to marinate the meat overnight, two to three hours will suffice. While the meat is soaking in the juices, you can collect the firewood. Birch and alder is the best wood for shashlik embers, but any dry wood without sap will do. If you don't have metal skewers, young birch branches are an acceptable substitute.


Last, but not least, comes the care and feeding of the flame. If you do not own a mangal, the portable metal structure created just for shashlichniki, dig a small ditch in which to build your fire. Once the flames have died down and the embers are glowing, spread the skewers across the opening of the ditch, balancing them across metal rods or thick, young branches. Keep a bottle of water or dry wine on hand to douse the fire as flames appears.


"Shashlik's biggest enemy is fire," said the ever-watchful Labanov, adding that the timely sprinkling of water or wine can save the shashlik one of the biggest perils in barbecuing -- drying out.


If inexperienced shashlichniki should fail in any of the preparatory steps, the summer will offer ample opportunity to perfect the technique.


Or you can always seek comfort in the words of one wise shashlichnik who said, "To truly understand the nuance of shashlik, you need a lot of alcohol."