From the Middle East: Feasting on Shawarma


Photo Credit: Vera Yu and David Li

Shawarmas are now as easy to get as hotdogs. But you have to admit that there is a different kind of fascination in watching that huge mass of meat slowly turning on a rotating spit with a grill behind it, as your server shaves off fine slices of meat for you.

Shawarmas are just as filling as hamburgers, and they have the added advantage of variety. You can have shawarmas made of chicken, lamb, beef, or veal; and each one tastes as good as the other. What’s more, instead of the ubiquitous bun, you get your meat in a warm pita.

Origins of the Shawarma

In Gulf News’  Shawarma: Arabic Fast Food, Mohammed N. Al Khan quotes Chef Ahmad Salaibi, Head Chef of the Automatic Restaurant at the Beach Centre in Jumeirah. Salaibi says, “Shawarma is the Arabic fast food. The original shawarma recipe is Turkish and known as the Iskandar shawarma,” says Salaibi…”                                         

Grecian Delights has this to say about the origins of shawarma: “Shawarma’s culinary journey began in Turkey under the name Döner Kabab (meaning “one that turns”). Today, it can be found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean as well as Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, UK, West Africa and now…the United States! 

“Ethnic independent restaurants in the U.S. have been making their own shawarma back-of-house for some time. The team at Grecian Delight Foods saw this global trend as an opportunity to make life a little easier for U.S. restaurant operators…”

Indeed, shawarma has conquered many of the world’s fast food joints and street food carts, and your first bite of this flavorful delight will show you why this is so.

What’s in Your Shawarma

Most shawarmas are made of chicken, beef, veal, or lamb. The beef, veal, or lamb, is sliced into thin steaks and skewered in layers. If veal is used, lamb is inserted among the layers to keep the meat from getting dry. The meat is then marinated in garlic, yogurt, lemon, vinegar, dried lime, spicy paprika, and spices.

Fine slices of the meat are shaved off from the rotating spit, and everything comes with tahini, a thick, oily paste made from sesame seeds, pickles, and a salad of onions, parsley, and tomatoes. Pita bread is served with the meat and a good serving of garlic paste. In most places, shawarma comes with a generous serving of hummus, tabouleh or falafel. More and more restaurants, however, are innovating this robust meal-in-pita with things like French fries and mayonnaise.

What Makes a Good Shawarma

The secret to a good shawarma is the meat, which needs to be juicy and flavorful. To begin with, the meat needs to be of good quality. If veal or lamb is used, most chefs will choose the leg and slice it into fine steaks before marinating. The meat needs to be marinated correctly so that it absorbs the flavors of the marinade without losing the character of the meat. Then, it has to be grilled at just the right temperature to make sure it does not dry up.

Purists will declare that without the pita, the hummus, and the garlic paste you don’t have much of a shawarma. Indeed, for some it is unthinkable that the shawarma be served without these three classic companions. Fortunately pita and hummus are easily available and quite easy to make, and many have reported great success with creating garlic paste in their own kitchen.

Enjoying Your Shawarma

You can have shawarma while seated and enjoy it with all the accompaniments, but you can also have it as a convenient on-the-go meal. Whichever way you want to have your shawarma, it is a truly satisfying treat – a mixture of smoky meat, distinct spices, and pickles all served up in a warm pita.

As a Middle Eastern creation, shawarma was not served with wine or spirits. However, since its entry into Western shores, more and more people are taking their shawarma with beer or wine. To choose the perfect wine for your shawarma, be guided by the spices in your marinade and the type of meat you used. As a whole, burgundy and zinfandel make good matches with the flavors of this Middle Eastern delight.

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