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Allspice (Recipe: shish taouk/garlic chicken on skewers)

While working on a new recipe index, I've been revisiting some posts from the early days of The Perfect Pantry. Here's one of my favorites -- my very first ingredient post -- and the story of how I became a food writer. Welcome to Oldies Week, Day One.


Do you think it's easy deciding where to start?

I was this close to logic and predictability, beginning at the beginning with the quintessential pantry items: salt and pepper. And then, this morning, the universe sent me a sign. Two signs, actually.

First: While Ted was watching the World Cup soccer matches on TV, I entered all of the pantry items willy-nilly into a database on my computer, and kicked out an alphabetized list of more than 200 items that are always in my fridge, freezer, spice rack and cupboards.

Top of the list? Allspice.


Second: We'd vowed to "eat down" our pantry and leftovers this weekend, so I needed to forage. In the freezer I discovered a deeply-buried package of Empire kosher chicken breasts (another pantry staple). On the counter sat a couple of lemons that were a day away from relegation to the compost bucket. I always have garlic, and olive oil, and allspice. In my kitchen that adds up to one thing: garlic chicken on skewers.


Until I decided to try my hand at food writing, I'm sure I'd never ever bought allspice, nor did I have a clue about how to use it. However, my desire for the recipe for the absolutely heavenly garlic-lemon-allspice chicken kabobs made by Elias "Louie" Aboujaoude at Cedar's Restaurant in Boston propelled me into a food writing career, so perhaps it is the best place to begin our pantry exploration.

Within a week of moving to the South End more than 25 years ago, Ted and I settled ourselves at a window table at Cedar’s to watch our new neighborhood stroll by. For the first few months, we tasted our way up and down the menu of traditional Lebanese dishes, moving from the familiar shish kabob and falafel to kibbie bi syniyeh and kufta balls.

Then we discovered the garlic chicken, listed on the menu as “#25 chicken on skewer,” and life changed forever. We began to have garlic chicken cravings, and to bring friends to the restaurant to taste the dish and help us figure out the ingredients. In my own tiny kitchen I began to experiment. Each attempt was, as they say, “close but no cigar.”

By July 1993, I’d been tasting and trying to recreate Cedar’s garlic chicken for 13 years (at two skewers per serving, that’s more than 400 skewers!). I knew the time had come to ask for the recipe, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And then it occurred to me that others also might like to learn the secret. Wouldn’t it be fun to share recipes, and stories of the lives of neighborhood cooks, in the local newspaper?

So that's how I became a professional food writer.

And that's why there's always fresh ground allspice in my pantry.

The dried berry of the evergreen pimiento tree, allspice, native to the West Indies and Central America, was discovered by Christopher Columbus — who thought it was pepper, hence its Spanish name, pimienta. Subsequently it became known as Jamaican pepper, because most of the best quality crop grew there; the English gave it the name "allspice", because it mimics the aroma of several spices, including cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. According to Herbs & Spices by Jill Norman, "allspice is the only important spice that still comes almost exclusively from its region of origin — which also makes it the only one grown almost exclusively in the New World."

Today the majority of the world allspice harvest goes to the food industry, for use in commercial ketchups and other sauces. Allspice is an essential ingredient in jerk spice blends, barbecue sauces and rubs, chutneys, and sausages. Bakers often incorporate it into spice cakes. The whole berries add important flavor to the pickling spice mix I use for my half-sours every summer.

Shish taouk (garlic chicken on skewers)

Serves 6-8.


6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2-4 cloves garlic, sliced, plus 4 cloves mashed (or from a jar)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil


Wash chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Add remaining ingredients, and mix well (with your hands). Marinate, covered or in a zip-loc bag, in the refrigerator for 4-5 hours, or overnight.

Heat grill to high. Place chicken on skewers, or on a barbecue grid, and cook over direct heat for 10-15 minutes, turning frequently. Serve with rice or in pitas, with chopped iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Riz imfalfal
Lemon-onion hummus
Chicken marbella

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I love looking into people's 'scrapbooks', old files, whatever. This was fun!
As to the indexing.... that's been on my to-do list for awhile; now the guilt can set in...

Wow this is really a loaded post. It is so wonderful in so many ways! Excellent. My dad always had and used allspice in his baking and I've always loved and used it. Now I must make these chicken skewers! garlic and allspice, that's a winner.
Thanks for this one.
And the indexing, well, ahem, yeah Katie the quilt can set in . . .

Oooooh, and index!!! I need to do that as well!. I'm also foing to have to try out this recipe. It looks simple and absolutely scrumptious!

Wonderful story of how you started writing. I don't have any allspice. Never used it before. Will get some and make the recipe above. Thanks!


This is such a wonderful post, Lydia! I have no clue what to do with allspice...I bought it once for some recipe and never used it again :)
I am so so glad you started writing!

Aiii, this promises to be a very good week!

Allspice was one of those spices in my pantry that was never used and therefore thrown out because it had not endured the test of time for freshness and flavor. Off to the store to buy a new jar and make what sounds to be a delicious recipe. Thanks.

Love the story and love the recipe, Lydia. Just glad SOMETHING kicked you in to food writing! Many thanks.

Katie, the indexing is definitely a work in progress.

MyKitchen, it took me years to get this chicken to be just as good as the one in the restaurant. Long marinating and cooking until you think it's overcooked is the key.

Jerry, I get cravings for this chicken -- it's so full of garlic, and the allspice gives a nice undertone.

Paz, this chicken is addictive. Buy a small jar of allspice and give it a try; I think you'll love it.

Nupur, I actually started writing professionally when I was 16 years old! My first job was on a newspaper, writing obituaries, when I was in high school. I didn't start cooking, though, until I was in my 30s.

Alanna, stay tuned for more fun!

Ronnie, this chicken, stuffed in a pita with lettuce, tomato, maybe some hummus....oh boy, it's good. You'll be glad you bought the allspice!

Christine, people who knew me when I was younger laugh and laugh when I tell them I write about food now. I was always known as the girl who couldn't cook!

Sound delish. I used to live in the South End with my husband (e concord street). Left right before that part (next to the med center) was gentrified, was pretty rough there.

I do not think we ever ate at Cedars.

I have only used allspice in pies and pumpkin cappuccinos, I need to try this for certain!

How fun, to learn how it all began! A great story about your becoming a food writer.

We love to sprinkle a little allspice in with our ground coffee from time to time, especially in cooler weather.

We share something in common, chicken taouk is probably my fave Lebanese dish. We have friends who make it with a blow-you-away garlic sauce that consists of little more than fresh garlic blitzed in a vitamizer with lemon juice and salt, really, a one in all in kinda sauce.

This is almost the same as the chinese five-spice, am I right?

This sounds great! I don't have all spice in my pantry but I'm sure gonna make an effort to buy & use it in my dishes now, thanks to you!

Nika, I meet so many people who lived in the same neighborhood at the same time -- it's a wonder we didn't all meet back then! This chicken always reminds me of when we first lived in the South End. Do you remember the Lebanon Bakery that made fresh pita bread every morning?

Jennifer, I've not tried allspice in coffee. It sounds delicious.

Neil, garlic rules! And the grilling is what makes all the difference to the chicken -- it needs to get a bit of crust.

Tigerfish, five-spice has Szechuan peppercorn, star anise, cinnamon, fennel and clove. Allspice is one particular berry that tastes a bit like cinnamon and clove, but without the balance, and spiciness, of the peppercorn.

Valentina, I'll be sure to post more recipes using allspice!

I love hearing stories about that "a-ha" moment when people realize what they want to do with their lives. And I know that your readers (myself included) are so happy you decided to share with us your thoughts and knowledge about food!

I thought allspice was a mixture of some spices like 5-spice. Thanks for clearing that up for me. :)

I know I'll find some interesting things around here this week! :)

Lydia, I have to be honest - I only learned about all spice existing after I started reaching for recipes in English!

Lisa, thank you. I never would have predicted that I'd grow up to be a food writer!

Veron, you're welcome. I love that the container I buy from the middle eastern market says "all spice", two words, like it really is a blend of all spices.

Patricia, interesting things, and amusing things.... Allspice is also called pimiento, so maybe that's a more familiar name to you.

I really like allspice, but I like more your obsession to recreate these kebabs! The recipe sounds so interesting, easy and delicious. And a neat entrance into your food writing career.

I love this oldies week idea! Allspice is a great start. :)

Callipygia, I can't believe I spent years and years figuring out the recipe -- and the secret, really, was to cook the chicken on the grill! I'd figured out the ingredients years before.

Amy, the rest of the week will be amusing, and interesting... I promise!

I love the notion of "eating down" the pantry or fridge. I usually do this so I can stock up on more pantry items. Right now, my pantry is brimming with artichokes, olives and tomatoes plus a way too vast collection of spices, herbs and salts...

I have eaten this dish many, many, many times at The Cedars and now many times at home. It is heavenly and now just as good at home.

Mimi, it's all about making room for fresh pantry items -- and I always feel so frugal when I "eat down" the pantry. Sounds like you have the making of some wonderful tapenades in your pantry!

Rupert, I agree -- there's nothing better!

I really enjoyed that post, allspice is such a lovely warming, comforting spice and it smells wonderful too :)

Kelly-Jane, allspice really makes this chicken dish amazing, but it's also a good partner to cinnamon in a lot of baked goods. It does impart a glorious aroma, too.

As I sat here and read this I realized that while I know of allspice I am completely unfamiliar with it. I couldn't tell you if I have it among my spices or if I've ever used it.

I'm going to go check to see if I have it though; this sounds wonderful.

Julie, you might find allspice berries in your pantry, as well as ground allspice. There's really nothing else that will make this chicken have the taste I remember -- but you could blend other "warm" spices, like cinnamon and cardamom with a few other things, to make your own version.

I tried this recipe with Texturized Vegetable Protein; I used the "chips" of TVP, but the Brests would also work. I grilled on a small electric grill, and they were incredibly good. Nice easy recipe.

I totally love kabobs, and will have to remember this recipe. You can do so much with it - and generally speaking they are pretty easy to make, which is the clincher for me. I've never thought of Allspice, will have to work that in next time.

These ones look legit too - I came across them doing marketing for Hellmann's Real Food campaign - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kblwNpaXRcU
Too bad I can't get Dave to come make them for me personally - lol!

Alexandra, thank you so much for trying (and adapting) this recipe. I've never cooked with TVP, but I hope the vegetarians in my family are reading this and getting some ideas.

Laura, Dave's a cutie, isn't he? Allspice gives the chicken a very warm undertone which is great with the garlic and lemon flavors. Hope you'll try them.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Lydia. It's great to learn more about you and the genesis of your writing career. Now, you've got me wondering about how many items I have in my pantry! :)

Susan, until I made a database, I was clueless. Then, when I saw the number of items pass 200, I was horrified! And of course that doesn't count the items that are not staples, but are hiding on the shelves (the one-time gifts, the homemade jams, etc.).

Lydia, definitely on the Dave thing! :D Thanks again for the All Spice tip - anything that complements a garlic flavor I'm down for.

I wanted to fire up the grill this afternoon...and this recipe sounds just right for it !!!

Chef Tom, this is an amazing recipe, but the chicken definitely needs several hours of marinating to absorb the garlic, lemon and allspice flavors. We go out in the snow in the middle of winter to fire up the grill just to make this chicken -- it's that good!

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