What’s cooking today: Rosemary and garlic chicken espetada

What’s cooking today: Rosemary and garlic chicken espetada
Chicken pieces skewered on rosemary branches and grilled over hot coals. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

This is a semi-traditional take on an espetada, that delight of the Madeiran-Portuguese repertoire.

The traditional Madeiran recipe for skewered beef or chicken is called espetada, usually cooked using bay tree branches. In more modern iterations, metal skewers are poised dramatically over a plate in your local Portuguese taverna, with bay leaves interspersed between the chunks of meat.

Bay trees, however, have long defeated me. Even though my friends call me green-fingered, if I stick a bay tree in the ground you can be sure that a few days or weeks later it will be dead. This has happened in five different gardens and soil types and even varying weather patterns on two continents.

Rosemary, on the other hand, favours my green fingers, and all five of our bushes are now abundant.

So this recipe for chicken espetada uses rosemary branches, with plenty of the garlic and bay of the traditional Madeiran espetada. Of course you can use bay branches if you’re lucky enough to have them. If you can’t manage to grow them, don’t ask me.


4 plump chicken breasts

4 fat cloves of garlic (1 per breast), chopped finely

12 bay leaves

Coarse salt

Olive oil to prevent the chicken sticking to the braai grid


The night before, or early in the morning of, the day when you are to braai the sosaties/ espetada/ kebabs, call them what you will, cut the chicken breast fillets into thick chunks and put them in a bowl or bakkie with all of the chopped garlic and plenty of coarse salt.

Massage the garlic into the meat and make sure the garlic is spread throughout. Refrigerate, covered, until an hour before needed, so you can bring the chicken back to room temperature.

Cut rosemary skewers to the desired length, somewhat longer than the chicken pieces will fill, because they look better that way and the chunks won’t fall off.

Skewer the chicken pieces directly onto the rosemary skewers; there’s no need to pick off the rosemary needles. Some may fall away naturally; that’s fine. Alternate some bay leaves between the chicken pieces. If the bay leaves will not be skewered (mine kept falling off), wrap them around the skewer and push the next piece of chicken right up against it to trap it there.

Once all the pieces are skewered evenly on the four rosemary branches, drizzle olive oil on all sides to prevent the chicken from sticking to the braai grid.

Grill on very hot coals, turning often, until just done. Be careful, as small pieces of chicken cook quickly and will dry out sooner than you can blink. DM/TGIFood

Our Thank God It’s Food newsletter is sent to subscribers every Friday at 6pm, and published on the TGIFood platform on Daily Maverick. It’s all about great reads on the themes of food and life. Subscribe here.

Send your recipes to [email protected] with a hi-resolution horizontal (landscape) photo.

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), please email him at [email protected]


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