Are Kebabs and Souvlaki Skewers the Same Thing?

Published Categorized as Food
A photo of kebabs (left) compared to souvlaki (right)

Kebabs and souvlaki are both skewered meat dishes prepared on the grill, but that’s where the similarities between them end.

Kebabs originated in the Middle East, and they’re made from mutton or lamb mince spiced with the aromas and flavors of the orient. Souvlaki originated in Greece, and it consists of cubed chicken or pork seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper.

It could be said that kebab is the food of the Orient, while souvlaki is the food of the Aegean coast of the Mediterranean. These two dishes are grilled using a similar direct-heat cooking technique, but their origins, ingredients, and flavor profiles are very different.

What Is a Kebab?

Kebab is a cooked meat dish that originated in the Middle East.

The original recipe for kebabs is said to date back to ancient times: Homer mentions pieces of meat roasted on a spit in the Iliad, and similar mentions are found in Vyasa’s Mahabharata.

There are many variations of kebab around the world, but by far the most common is minced mutton or lamb meat seasoned with salt, garlic, and/or onions and grilled with direct heat on a skewer.

Related: Ground Meat vs. Minced Meat (The Differences)

Kebabs are cooked until the minced meat is cooked through and gets imparted with golden-brown to pitch-black grill marks from the grill grate. The meat comes out moist and fall-apart tender, with an aroma and flavor that most eaters would describe as Middle Eastern or oriental.

Traditionally, the kebabs are served on flatbread or rice, and complemented with a fresh vegetable salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers. Sometimes, the meat is topped with a tangy yogurt garlic sauce.

What Is a Souvlaki Skewer?

Souvlaki is a Greek grilled dish and a popular menu item on the Greek dining table.

Excavations on the Aegean Sea islands of Santorini show that the natives were grilling meat on spits on stone supports as early as the 17th century BC.

In its simplest form, souvlaki consists of chicken or pork cut into bite-sized cubes, then brushed or marinated with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper, and grilled with direct heat on a skewer.

Customarily, souvlaki skewers are cooked until they are golden brown and slightly charred on the surface. The meat has a salty, spicy, and herbaceous flavor thanks to the fact that they’re brushed or marinated with fresh herbs, dried spices, and lemon juice.

Souvlaki is usually served with pita bread, tzatziki, and sliced lemon. Traditional side dishes served with souvlaki include Greek salad and fries. (Fried zucchini, another quintessentially Greek side dish, is sometimes served with souvlaki—but more often with fish.)

What Meat Is Best for Kebabs?

Mutton or lamb is the most common type of meat used for preparing kebabs. (Lamb meat is the meat of a young animal, usually up to 1 year of age, while mutton is the meat of an adult animal at 3 years of age.)

Regional kebab varieties can also be made from goat, beef, chicken, and in some cases even fish. Pork is seldom, if ever, used for kebabs; it’s the only type of meat that Muslims are categorically forbidden to eat.

The meat, which may be from a single animal or a mix of meats, is chopped or minced and then seasoned with salt, spices, garlic, and/or onions. The spices may include coriander, saffron, and sumac, depending on the region and peculiarities of the recipe.

What Meat Is Best for Souvlaki?

Boneless chicken breast and pork tenderloin or pork neck are the best meats for souvlaki.

The meat is cut into bite-sized cubes and brushed or marinated with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, salt, and black pepper. (Normally, the mixture is heavy on the garlic and the lemon juice, giving the final dish a tangy zing.)

Souvlaki can also be prepared with swordfish and in some cases beef, although pork and chicken are the two traditional and preferred meats for this dish.

How Do You Cook Them?

Grilling is undoubtedly the best method of preparation for both Middle Eastern skewers and Greek souvlaki.

The cook ignites the charcoal and waits until the embers turn white and ashy—or preheats the gas or electric grill for 15-20 minutes—then places the skewers on the grate and lets them sizzle.

The meat is left to cook uninterrupted for several minutes on one side. Then, it’s turned over and the process repeats. Kebabs are fairly flat, so they’re typically cooked on two sides. Souvlaki skewers are rectangular, so they’re cooked on four sides.

High, direct heat grills the meat quickly, gives it grill marks, and cooks it through without drying it out. After being removed from the heat, the meat is rested for 3-4 minutes before it’s plated and sent to the table for all to enjoy.

Final Words

Whether you want to enjoy the oriental flavors of the Middle East or the taste of the Aegean coast, kebabs and souvlaki skewers are two simple and easy dishes to prepare at home.

Both dishes provide enough protein to feed a hungry family and encourage hands-on, social eating, where family members around the table mix their food with various side dishes and share thoughts and ideas.

Oh, and they taste fantastic. No matter which of the two you prepare tonight, we guarantee there will be no leftovers.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.