Robata-grilled chicken and ribeye at Dragonfly in Gainesville.
Skewered in Florida – kabobs in various forms spread across the state
Smart chefs and wise home cooks, my mother among them, suspect there are about five or six recipes in the world that are common to every tribe on the planet, believing that each tribe started with the same idea and came up with its own variation. Surely shish kebob is one: Meat on a stick has to be as ancient as fire.
Skewers have become popular for very modern reasons. Kabobs are quick to cook (with little heat or space, ideal for food trucks), handheld and highly portable, fresh, generally low-carb and easily augmented with vegetables. What was cooked on small roadside fires for centuries has established a place on fast, casual menus.
Shish kabobs of modern taste trace their origins to Greece and Turkey and into western Asia. The first word probably comes from Turkish for skewer, fancifully a warrior’s sword, while kabob is traced to the Persian word for grilling or roasting.
Depending on the dressings and marinades and the meat or fish — beef, lamb, chicken, shrimp, tuna, octopus — it’s a world-beater of many flavors. And Florida has almost every kind.
Meat on a stick, as it turns out, isn’t so simple.
The Latin taste in kebabs may have arrived with the influx of Peruvian food. Ceviche got the most attention, with its outlets in Orlando and Tampa Bay styling their skewers as banderillas — “darts” — with various meats, mushrooms, peppers and onions.
As Peruvian restaurants have expanded in Florida, some, like Sarasota’s Inkanto, serve the most popular, anticuchos — cubes of spiced marinated beef heart. One of the 25 dining options aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Escape is Pincho tapas bar, styled by star chef Jose Garces.
In Italian, the word for a skewer is spiedino, and you’ll see it on some menus as an appetizer or an entrée, including the Carrabba’s chain, which includes spiedino di mare of fish, shrimp and scallops as a healthful alternative.
Kabobs of chicken, beef and pork are a staple at Greek restaurants across the state, from growing chains like the six-unit Acropolis to the fashionable Mandolin Aegean Bistro in Miami’s MiMo district around Biscayne Boulevard.
The biggest selection may be at Skewers Mediterranean Grille, which has been in Indialantic for 20 years: 10 varieties including lamb, filet mignon, zucchini and pomegranate- glazed shrimp.
Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants are big on kabobs, and some like Tampa’s Gengiz Khan serve both skewered kabobs of beef, chicken and kofta beef-wheat mix as well as doner kabob.
Naples’ Bha! Bha! offers a halfdozen Persian skewers of lamb, sirloin, chicken and koobideh (ground beef with saffron and sumac), grilled vegetables, rice and more exotic entrees.
Somewhat further afield are the kabobs at Ararat Euro Food and Bistro in Orlando, which go by the Russian word shashlik, skewered meats that get a more unusual flavor if you also order a beet walnut salad and Moldovan wine.
The first wave of Asian skewers came with the tiny grills on Chinese puu puu platters, followed by the satays in Thai and Malaysian restaurants, invariably served with peanut sauce. They get fresh flavor in new restaurants like the Hawkers chain and Orlando’s Mamak, both of which brag of street food roots.
Japanese yakitori played second-string to sushi until the izakaya trend arrived with robata charcoal grills of traditional pubs in Japan. One of the earliest was Yakitori Sake House of Boca Raton, which has more than a dozen items on the grill, including duck, squid and tofu.
At Dragonfly, the Gainesville sushi bar that also ate Orlando and Doral, the robato grill features tiger prawns, bacon-wrapped asparagus, Wagyu beef and yellowtail. Similarly, the outpost of Zuma in Miami, the global chain, skewers such combinations as kurobuta pork and yuzu mustard or miso beef and shishito peppers.
When Otto Othman and kinsmen Nedal and Nizer Ahmad started their kabob place, they offered sauces from California, Latin America and the Mediterranean, and they decorated the walls with the many words for kabobs. But they chose the Spanish one for their name: Pincho Factory, which also boasts burgers and now has a half-dozen locations, franchises in the works and a spot on the concessions roster at Miami Heat games.
At Juvia, the glamorous Venezu- elan/Japanese/French spot on Lincoln Road, there’s a beef bincho pincho, which underscores that the Spanish skewer is cooked on binchotan, the hip Japanese charcoal.
The mashups can get more complicated. When Turkish workers immigrated to Germany, they brought the doner kabob, what Americans call gyros roasted on a spit rather than a skewer. Former soccer player Oliver Freuen has brought his Spitfire “street food refined” to Miami Beach. Beef or chicken carved from the gyro spit is served on bread, greens or rice along with the feta, turmeric onions, tzatziki and not-so-traditional shredded red cabbage that are more typical on bratwurst.