Beef-lamb shish kebabs with sautéed peppers and onions at Layalina in Biddeford. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Talal Alzefiri, owner of the Middle Eastern restaurant Layalina in Biddeford, is known to his family as “kebab.”

He picked up the nickname because when he was about 8 years old and living in Kuwait, he suffered from frequent nosebleeds. To remedy the problem, Alzefiri’s father had the boy eat kebabs with grilled tomato and onion every day for three years.

To this day he credits the kebab-based diet for healing his nosebleeds. “It really helped me a lot, made me normal,” Alzefiri said.

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan now underway – it started this year on Wednesday and runs to April 21 – we wanted to spotlight kebabs, one of many traditional dishes served at fast-breaking iftar feasts throughout the month. Certainly there’s no better expert guide to explain how to make them than someone who answers to “kebab.”

Alzefiri and his Bangladeshi chef, who goes by his last name, Sujauddoula, fired up Layalina’s clay-lined tandoor oven on a Thursday morning earlier this month to demonstrate the art and craft of kebab cooking.



With nearly 2 billion Muslims worldwide and about 50 countries with a Muslim majority population, there are no monolithic, standard dishes served to break the daily Ramadan fast at sunset. Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, explained that meals vary from one culture or country to another – iftar dishes served in Indonesia or Bangladesh will necessarily differ from those served in Kuwait or Kenya.

Jalali recalled that in the Iranian community where he was raised, kebabs weren’t often made for iftar meals.

“I suspect part of it might have been that when you’re making kebab before breaking the fast, that could be kind of hard on people who are fasting,” Jalali said. “Because the aroma of kebab, you can’t keep it in the kitchen. It escapes and goes through the entire neighborhood.”

Sujauddoula uncovered a large plastic bin to reveal the kebab blend that he’d prepared about 24 hours earlier, in order to give the seasoning time to penetrate the meat. To Jalali’s point, the appetizing, savory fragrance of the spiced meat mixture filled the Layalina kitchen even before the chef started cooking.

While shish kebabs in America are often made with chunks of steak, chicken or fish interspersed with pieces of vegetables, kebabs in Muslim regions are typically made from ground beef or lamb, or sometimes a combination of the two, as with the Layalina version. Traditional kebab recipes can vary from family to family, much like recipes for chili in the United States.

After plenty of experimentation, Alzefiri has landed on a 70-30 blend of beef to lamb. At that ratio, he said, the lamb lends its distinctive flavor to the kebab without overpowering the beef. “The lamb can really take over if you use more,” he said.


Experience has also led Alzefiri to favor lean ground beef for kebabs. Less fat means fewer flame-flare-ups while the kebabs grill, and it also helps keep the formed kebab from breaking apart while it cooks.

But practical considerations aside, Alzefiri finds leaner kebabs more delicious. “I grew up in a community that felt more fat was more taste,” he said. “But when I tried both, the less fat version is actually tastier.”

Chef Sujauddoula shapes the lamb and beef mixture onto a shish (skewer). Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Alzefiri and Sujauddoula apply the same judicious thinking into seasoning the meat mixture. They try to keep it simple: some ground turmeric, coriander and cumin, salt, fresh cilantro for brightness and a little fresh garlic and ginger for pungency.

Yvonne Maffei, the California-based author of the “My Halal Kitchen” cookbook and website of the same name, agrees with a minimalist approach. “The simpler the better,” Maffei said. “Don’t add too much to the meat mixture and let the meat speak for itself.”

Maffei said she learned a smart kebab trick from a Turkish friend: Add grated onion to the meat blend, along with the onion juice that accumulates while grating, to help the meat stay wonderfully moist.


Once the meat is fully seasoned with spices and aromatics, Alzefiri advises letting it stand, refrigerated, overnight or up to 24 hours so the flavors can meld. Beyond 24 hours and the seasoning will overpower the meat flavor.

“You want to have the taste of the meat when you’re done cooking,” Alzefiri said.

Talal Alzefiri checks the heat of his tandoor oven before cooking shish kebabs. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Forming the kebabs around the skewers is as critical to the dish’s success as its ingredients. Chef Sujauddoula takes a roughly 12-ounce oval ball of meat mixture and spears it with a yard-long metal skewer. He deftly presses the meat and spreads it along the skewer, occasionally dipping his palms in a bowl of water to keep the mixture from sticking, until it’s about two feet long and a little over an inch wide.

Sujauddoula takes great care to keep the meat evenly distributed along the skewer, and gently presses it as he works to guard against air pockets that could cause the meat to break off its metal perch and fall into the tandoor oven. He has set diffusing plates above the oven’s open flames, while atop the plates, he puts lava stones covered in white ash – the stones look like overgrown powdered Munchkin donuts – to create a homogenous heat environment.

Talal Alzefiri transfers balls made of mud and cement into a tandoor oven while making shish kebabs at Layalina in Biddeford. The balls absorb and then radiate the heat of the oven, allowing the kebabs to cook more slowly. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

While not everyone has the luxury of a tandoor oven at home, Alzefiri explained that kebabs can easily be cooked on a standard grill or simply roasted in the oven, though the oven versions may lack the grilled kebab’s lightly smoky magic. Some cultures prefer to deep-fry their kebabs, he said, pressing the meat blend into small discs and cooking them in oil heated to about 375 degrees F.

Maffei said she’s partial to flat metal skewers, but the metal is more important even than the shape. She said even if you pre-soak wood skewers in water to keep them from burning while the kebabs grill, the thin wooden sticks just aren’t sturdy enough for the heavy meat mixture.


Sujauddoula places his meat-laden metal skewers down into the tandoor oven, which he’s heated to about 350 degrees F, though he said anywhere from 300 to 350 degrees will do the trick. The low to moderate temperature helps the kebabs cook evenly, so the outside doesn’t char before the core is cooked through.

Kebabs cook in a tandoor oven at Layalina. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

After about 15 minutes, Sujauddoula pulls the sizzling, evenly browned kebabs from the oven. He slides the cooked meat off the skewers and cuts them into 2-inch chunks.

The chef taste-tests the finished kebabs and they meet his approval: fully cooked but still moist, with a delectable, almost crisp crust and big, bold flavor that brings out the best from the beef and lamb.

Sujauddoula then sautés sliced onion and green and red bell peppers in ghee (clarified butter) and tosses the kebabs in the vegetable mixture before serving all of it with toasted naan bread. Alzefiri gives the fire-roasted meat chunks a good squeeze of lemon as a finishing touch.

As he plates the bountiful meal, Alzefiri explains that Ramadan is “the month where you refresh your body and mind, and a month of generosity – food is what really brings people together.” He said his mother would always cook extra portions for iftar meals in case they had an unexpected guest or were able to feed someone in need.

Jalali said his mother made enormous batches of whatever she was cooking during Ramadan, with the extra reserved for others outside the family. “Part of the philosophy of Ramadan is to find empathy for those poor and low-income people who go without food, not by choice,” he explained.


“I would take this month as a chance to reach out to your Muslim neighbor or colleague,” Maffei said, adding that non-Muslims are welcome at community iftars around the United States. “Food is a great connector, and we love to share. Every year, Ramadan is a great opportunity for people to come together.”

Beef and Lamb Shish Kebabs 

The recipe is from Layalina restaurant in Biddeford. Serve the kebabs on a bed of sautéed onions and bell peppers, along with warm naan or pita bread. To make the kebabs on a grill, prepare a low to moderate fire (300-350 degrees F), and set the skewers on a metal sheet pan atop the grill grate.

Serves 6-8

1 ½ pounds 90% lean ground sirloin
1/2 pound ground lamb
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon hot paprika, optional
Salt to taste
Lemon wedges, for serving

Combine the ground sirloin and remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Stir until well blended. Cover and refrigerate the mixture overnight or up to 24 hours.


Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Shape the meat mixture into 5 oval balls. Thread metal skewers lengthwise through each oval, and gently press the meat down around the skewer until it forms a cylinder about 1¼ inches in diameter.

Set the formed skewers crosswise on a small baking pan and place the pan in the preheated oven. Bake 15 minutes until the meat is cooked through and the exterior browned.

Gently slide the kebabs off the skewers. Slice crosswise into 2-inch chunks and squeeze with lemon to serve.

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