Why shawarma is the Middle East's most savoured dish

It was recently revealed that shawarmas are the most tagged food on Instagram from the Middle East

DUBAI, UAE. November 3, 2014 - Photograph of beef shawarma available at Just Falafel in Dubai Marina, November 3, 2014. (Photos by: Sarah Dea/The National, Story by: Lianne Gutcher, Arts and Life)
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Last month, research compiled by food delivery service Gousto noted that shawarmas are the most tagged food on Instagram from the Middle East. Not taking spelling variations into account, the humble shawarma has been tagged 544,230 times and in several languages. Promotional posts from chefs and restaurants aside, the handle is populated by foodies waxing eloquent about their favourite beef / chicken wrap, and where they've eaten it around the world. Bad 'uns are called out, too, often ruthlessly – which goes to show just how seriously connoisseurs take their shawarmas.   

What’s in a shawarma?

So what exactly is a shawarma? “If I am talking to someone who has never heard of a shawarma, I would describe it as arguably the most famous Middle Eastern sandwich, which comes with beautifully spiced meat that’s commonly cooked on a rotating skewer and sliced thin to fill a flatbread, along with vegetables and pickles,” says Luke Thomas, executive chef at Dubai restaurant Retro Feasts.

The skewer he's referring to is a vertical, conical ­rotisserie-style spit, wrapped with a thick slab of meat kept juicy by hours and hours of rotation. Specially designed shawarma knives (originally circular saws, but increasingly electric versions) are used to shave slivers off the large stack and onto the tray below, from where they are collected to stuff into a bread casing (although shawarma platters are available, too). The veggies and sauces that are used as fillings alongside traditionally depend on the type of meat – red or white.  

Arva Ahmed, founder of the UAE's walking food tour company Frying Pan Adventures, explains: "The basic anatomy of a shawarma is strips of meat glued together with either tahini or toum (garlic aioli) sauce, depending on the type of sandwich. Typically, you'd find tahini, sliced tomatoes, raw onions and parsley in an old-school beef shawarma, while a chicken shawarma usually has toum and pickles."

French fries and other fillings

Chicken shawarmas are also often accompanied by French fries, which are used to pad out the wrap. As Ali Fouad, head chef at Lebanese restaurants Al Nafoorah and Khaymat Al Bahar, puts it: "Meat with a creamy garlic sauce wrapped with French fries – with that mix, it's hardly surprising that the ­shawarma is now a global food phenomenon."

Vegetables, pickles and sauces aside, shawarmas are marinated using a ­succulent spice blend. “Common spices to marinate a chicken shawarma are chilli paste, oregano, white vinegar and, of course, garlic sauce. For the beef shawarma, the marination and spices used are different, and include a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, oregano, thyme, nutmeg, corn oil, all mixed with the tahini sauce,” says Fouad.

"Fillings, when used in the right proportions, add contrasting textures and flavours," adds Ahmed. "You need herbs or vegetables to add freshness, juiciness (in the case of tomatoes), acidity (pickled vegetables) or crunch (raw onions). You need creaminess (tahini or toum) to bind the meat and bread, which would otherwise taste dry and bland on their own. Tahini lends nuttiness, which stands up well to the hearty flavour of beef. And toum plays the same role that mayo or ketchup does in a burger – it brightens up a greasy chicken shawarma. It also adds garlic flavour that typically masks the 'chickeny' odour of chicken."  

Although some prefer to order a portion of hummus alongside their shawarma, the chickpea dip is not traditionally part of the wrap’s filling.

The source of all shawarmas

There is also no official history tracing the shawarma’s arrival in the Gulf, but the consensus is that it made its way from Turkey. The name comes from the Turkish word “çevirme”, which means “turning”. It’s now called doner kebab in Turkey and gyro in Greece, where it’s served with tangy tzatziki yogurt dip, plus tomatoes, onion and fried potatoes.

Like its Turkish and Greek peers, the shawarma is usually served in a thin flatbread. This, too, takes various forms – from markouk bread, ­commonly known as saj, to ­Levantine-style khubz (or pita), and the more slender Iranian lavash. “There’s a huge degree of variation in the khubz breads as well, in terms of how doughy versus how delicate they are,” notes Ahmed, while chef Thomas says he prefers “the Khebez bread which is Lebanese. Its ­super-soft, forgiving and soaks up the juices of the meat,” he explains.

Shawarma spin-offs

As with art, food too qualifies for the learn-the-rules-so-you-can-break-them adage, as the many shawarma spin-offs ­deliciously demonstrate. From shawarma nachos, tacos, quesadillas and poutine, to those stuffed with purple slaw and ones made from chocolate, the dish has been combined with almost every conceivable flavour.

Shawarma quesadilla at Vida Downtown. Courtesy Vida Downtown
Shawarma quesadilla at Vida Downtown. Courtesy Vida Downtown

Retro Feasts, for example, has delivered some interesting creations, including shawarmas with harissa sauce, Asian vegetable pickles and even an American BBQ option, although Thomas admits: “What definitely hasn’t worked is truffle.”

Likewise, chef Fouad – who prefers to stick to the traditional variant at his restaurants – says he’s come across several unusual fillings. “At street-side shawarma joints, I usually find a shawarma that’s loaded with spices, the red tinge of which gives it a unique hue. Another unusual spin-off is the saffron-­flavoured shawarma.

"The two that stand out for me the most are the sweet shawarmas I've come across," he adds. "One was created using nougat sweets in a traditional shawarma wrap with the sweets cut and shredded the same way as the meat would be, and served with assorted fruits. Another is the chocolate shawarma, made of mixed white and brown chocolate that's shredded into slices, layered in a crepe base, loaded with different fruits flavours and topped with different kinds of syrups, such as strawberry or chocolate."  

Five to try

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð July 2:  One of the Shawarma ( arabic style sandwich ) shop at Nasser square in Deira Dubai . (Pawan Singh / The National)

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A streetside shawarma shop in Deira. Pawan Singh / The National

Intriguing as these variants sound, a quick poll revealed that most of us at The National find our must-have ­shawarmas at small-time eateries: they are at once authentic and under Dh10. The five (of the countless) names that popped up in more than one in-house foodie's list include: Abu Dhabi's Maroosh (Dh7 for a regular chicken and beef shawarma) and Shawerma Molok Al Sham in Khalidiya (Dh5 for chicken, Dh6 for meat); Dubai's Eat and Drink (Dh5.50 for chicken and beef) and Al Mallah (Dh9 for chicken and beef); and Sharjah's Laffah Cafeteria (Dh6 for chicken, Dh8 for meat).