Lamb shawarma, or Mother’s Day lunch

Food & drink
A Middle Eastern street food classic, a lamb shawarma – spicy, subtle and wonderfully rich meat, served in pitta bread.A Middle Eastern street food classic, a lamb shawarma – spicy, subtle and wonderfully rich meat, served in pitta bread.

It’s Mother’s Day today.

It’s a bittersweet experience, the pleasure of seeing our kids with their homemade cards and bunches of daffodils tinged with the regret of not being able to give my own mum the same things, not being able to hug her and tell her I love her any more.

It gets easier every year, but it’ll never be an entirely normal day, never a routine celebration.

There’s a wound there that won’t heal, can’t heal, shouldn’t heal. It won’t heal because this is what marks me now, this is what made me an adult, that week so many years ago when worlds crumbled and slipped away.

But there’s another side, a side that calls for a feast, because mothers are brilliant, aren’t they?

I might not have mine, but there’s one right here, and she’s getting a decent lunch if me and the kids have anything to do with it.

I read a tweet this morning that made me snort with laughter, something like Mother’s Day being a time when mums across the country get taken out to pubs and served Yorkshire puddings vastly inferior to their own.

We’re determined not to let that happen.

So, something at home. A lamb shawarma, or an approximation of one, at the very least.

This is a Middle Eastern classic, where it’s sold as fast food in the manner of a kebab, slivers of lamb shaved from a slowly rotating spit, served in pita with salad and harissa.

It’s almost impossible to recreate something like that in a domestic British kitchen, but this technique with a big leg of lamb produces excellent results, all spicy lamb spiked with lemon and coriander and sumac.

Start the evening before, to give the lamb enough time to marinade properly. Measure out two teaspoons of black peppercorns, five cloves, half a teaspoon of cardamon pods, a quarter teaspoon of fenugreek seeds, a star anise, and half a cinnamon stick and toast them gently in a dry frying pan.

Take care not to let the spices burn … they should just start to colour and release their oils.

When the spices are ready, turn off the heat, but keep the spices on the moves, and add half a grated nutmeg, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger and a tablespoon of paprika. Transfer the toasted spices to a spice grinder (that old coffee grinder that never gets used?) and blitz it all together to a fine powder.

Tip the spices into a bowl and add a tablespoon of sumac, three-quarters of a tablespoon of sea salt, 25g of grated fresh ginger, three cloves worth of crushed garlic and 40g of chopped coriander, stalks and all. Let the mixture down with about 60ml of lemon juice and 120ml of groundnut oil.

The dry spices, less the sumac and the salt are known as Lebanese spice mix, and make a useful rub for fish or meat, or even root vegetables. It’s useful to have some on hand.

The lamb needs to be prepared a little before the marinade goes on, just by cutting a few shallow slashes and gouges in it to let the spices seep in and flavour the meat more thoroughly. Use a large leg if you can get one, something above 2.5kg should be okay. Nothing will go to waste – the leftovers are wonderful.

Put the leg of lamb into a large roasting tin and pour the marinade over it, rubbing it in well, pushing spices into all the slashes. Use your hands to massage the meat, to really work the marinade in.

Cover the tray and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, heat the oven to 170c, or 150c if it’s a fan oven, and start cooking. Roast for half an hour, then add a generous cup of boiling water to the bottom of the tray and shake it around to amalgamate some of the marinade. This will become a rich sauce.

The lamb needs to roast slowly for about four and a half hours in total, but cover it with foil for the last three hours to stop the spices from scorching, and keep the water level topped up so that there’s always a shallow puddle of sauce in the bottom of the tin.

Baste the meat every hour, and rest it for ten or twenty minutes once it’s cooked.

Serve by carving off thin slices of lamb and stuffing them into pita bread with salad, drizzling over some of the pan juices.

A salad is essential, but doesn’t need to be too fanciful. Ours was sliced tomatoes and cucumber, with shredded lettuce, topped with raisins, dried apricot and chopped nuts, dressed with lemon, olive oil and sumac.

This recipe is from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s wonderful Jerusalem … worth buying your mum a copy.

She’ll love you forever for it.