Venison Shank Shawarma Tacos

My commute to and from work was very near an hour and 15 minutes each way for five years.  After working 8-10 hours, it was a nice treat to just bring home dinner from time to time. I passed a lot of options for dinner on that hour-plus drive home. One being an Afghani grocery store that was run by three generations of the same family. 

They had a small kitchen where they would prepare a few dishes for purchase. While the grandson cooked the meal, the father and grandfather would typically work the window or chat with guests who were shopping in the store or waiting for their food. While waiting for the beef shawarma I had ordered one evening, the grandfather and I were continuing a previous chat about cooking and different ingredients they carried in the store. The spice za’atar was mentioned. I had never heard of this strangely named spice so the grandfather showed me where in the store I could find it. He then told me this spice was most likely the flavor that drew me to the beef shawarma his grandson was finishing for me. 

That day, I left the store with both my beef shawarma and a bottle of za’atar. This recipe is the result of my continued investigations into the woodsy herbal flavor of za’atar and our habit at home of using game meats in place of any other red meat. I hope you like it as much as we do.

photo: Jody Watson

Serve the shawarma meat with basmati rice, soft flour tortillas or pita triangles and a fresh salad of chopped onion and tomato topped with crisp, cool tzatziki sauce.

Other serving options include chopped or pulled shawarma meat topped with labneh in olive oil or tahini sauce.  Roasted vegetables such as potatoes or eggplant slices also pair well with the shawarma.

Prep Time: 30 minutes                  Cook Time: 1½ to 2 hours             Total Time: 2 to 2½  hours

Yield: 4 soft tacos

For the Shwarma:

  • 1 bone-in deer shank (about 1 to 1¼ pounds each) at room temperature
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • Enough water to cover the shank completely in whatever baking dish you use

For the Marinade:

  • 1 tbs coriander, whole
  • 1 tbs cumin, whole
  • ½ tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp cardamom, ground
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1¼ tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp za’atar (spice blend that gives shawarma the authentic Middle Eastern flavor that is so unusual to our western taste buds)
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
  • ½-inch piece of ginger, peeled
  • 1 shallot, peeled and diced

For the Salad:

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tomato, finely chopped
  • 1 jalepeno, finaly chopped

For the Tzatziki Sauce:

  • 1 tbs apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ of a large cucumber, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbs fresh dill, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1½ cups plain greek yogurt
  • 1 tbs lemon juice

To Finish the Dish:

  • 4 soft flour tortillas
  • 1 cup basmati Rice, cooked


  1. Ready an oven-safe baking dish that is deep enough to lay the shank flat and completely cover it with liquid. I use a glass Good Cook 1¾-quart casserole dish with a lid. You can use an 11-by-9-inch baking pan or a Dutch oven. Whatever you use, make sure it is oven safe and can easily hold enough liquid to completely cover the meat.
  2. Toast the coriander and cumin in a pan over medium heat until you begin to smell them (about 1-2 minutes). Add the allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, sea salt, smoked paprika, turmeric and za’atar spices to the pan with the coriander and cumin. Stir to combine and gently toast, less than a minute more.  Transfer all spices to a food processor. Pulse until everything comes together in a uniform powder.
  3. Mix powder together with vinegar, olive oil, garlic, ginger and shallots to make a paste. Rub this paste all over the shank.
  4. Let the meat rest in the marinade on the counter for about 2 hours to allow the meat to gradually warm to room temp and absorb the flavors of the marinade. 
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  6. Arrange the roughly chopped onion pieces in the bottom of the baking dish. 
  7. In a large pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. 
  8. With a spoon, rub off and reserve the marinade. Pat the meat dry.
  9. Gently sear the shank over medium-high heat until browned on all sides, about 3 minutes. Transfer the seared shank to the onions in the baking dish.
  10. Add the reserved marinade and ¼ cup of water to the pan where you seared the meat. Bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan to remove all of the crispy bits leftover from searing the meat.  Pour the marinade back over the meat.
  11. Just before placing the baking dish in the oven, add enough water to cover the entire shank – bone and all. Tightly cover the baking dish with an oven-safe cover or foil. Braise until very tender, about 1½ or 2 hours. Turn over the shank every half-hour to ensure all parts of the bone and tendons spend time covered in the braising liquid. Add water, as needed, or turn more often, if the meat seems to be drying out. After the first 1½ hours, remove the cover to allow the meat to brown. 
  12. Meanwhile, make the salad. Combine the chopped onion, tomato and jalepeno in a bowl. Then, combine the ingredients for the tzatziki sauce in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Toss the salad in the tzatziki sauce. Let rest in refrigerator until ready to serve.
  13. Shank is done when you try to turn it over and the bones fall easily away from the meat. Let meat rest off heat for 20 minutes. Remove the bones, strain the liquid and remove the fat.
  14. Shred the meat with your fingers or two forks. Add the cooked rice to the meat. Pour the warm braising liquid back over the meat/rice mix. Toss to coat.
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