Shawarma: The Arabian Taco
Automatic Restaurant/Cafeteria - Abu Dhabi
What is a shawarma?
Are you talking about Shwarma? Shawerma? Shawrma? Chawerma? Gyros? Gyro? Doner Kebab? Kepap? Sandwish bil hummus?
Is it the one from Abu Dhabi? Syria? Turkey? Lebanon? Iran? Greece? Mexico? Stop with the chest-thumping cultural wars over who first invented shawarma please - it's good, who cares, eat it....!
Shawarma (the closest English translation to the Arabic) is all of those things, and more. I like to think of shawarmas as the "Arabian Taco," because of their ubiquitous and inexpensive nature. (You heard the term here first).
People also think of Shawarmas as being similar to Gyros (from Greece), this is not true: the Gyro, excellent in its own right, usually has different ingredients inside the sandwich. Gyro meat is often quite different as well, both in its spices and in that Gyro meat is usually a mixture of beef and lamb while shawarma is typically never beef and occasionally only lamb. In the states, most Gyros in restaurants come from the same company and the meat is a very particular flavor.
The shawarma is also a country by country experience, changing taste and texture even by neighborhood in the same city.
If you travel in the Middle East, you will invariably come across these delicious street-side items and will be surprised by the variety of them that you will find.
Most shawarmas are made outside restaurants, you can spot the shawarma shops by their massive towering logs of revolving meat and their vertical red cookers that are sizzling the rawness away. These meat towers are usually manned by shawarma cutters, sometimes dressed in entire cook’s outfits replete with French chef hats. The men wield lengthy knives with which they slice off bits of the meat into a receptacle. These hearty souls are usually drenched in sweat, being outside in the Middle East weather, fully dressed, and standing before searing hot cooking grids.
Some countries like the UAE have banned outdoor shawarma cooking due to health concerns, unfortunately, so now the cutting men have to stand inside makeshift outdoor shed type houses which undoubtedly adds to the heat (it can get up to 130 degrees F in some Gulf Countries, even at night).
The receptacle that the meat falls into is also usually home to some of the shawarma’s toppings, such as sliced tomatoes, onions or cucumbers. This allows the vegetables to soak up the meat juices from above, giving them a very distinct taste.
shawarma from Dubai airport
What’s in a shawarma?
Most shawarma is made with lamb or chicken, though I’ve also had a lamb/beef mixture, and goat.
What else goes inside is a matter for the restaurant. The best shawarmas I’ve had were in Abu Dhabi and were made in small pita breads which were sliced open and included tomatoes, garlic sauce, pickles, tabouli, and french fries (of all things).
I’ve also had them on French bread rolls and in unsliced larger sized pita bread. In Syria and Lebanon they come wrapped up in a flatbread not unlike a Mexican tortilla.
The entirety (if on pita) is then rolled up like a taco and put in a wrapper.
Falafel is sometimes served like French Fries, on the side, with some tabouli (instead of ketchup). Turnip pickles (the french fry looking purple things) are another delicious side dish usually served.
Where is the best Shawarma?
(check out our new section: readers pick the best shawarma in the world)
Unfortunately, I’ve had lots of bad shawarmas. One place in Oakland, California, an Arabic pizza restaurant, cooked cut up slices of pan fried chicken with some pepper on it and put it in a french roll and called it shawarma. Tasted like spiced asbestos. I did not return.
I’ve heard the shawarmas in Turkey are outstanding, as are the ones in Lebanon.
In the USA I’ve found an authentic tasting shawarma in an Armenian chain restaurant called Zankou Chicken. If you are in the Los Angeles, CA area (including Anaheim), please stop by and get some of their excellent food, they’ve got a few branches in the city. Their website is http://www.zankouchicken.com/. These are the best shawarmas you'll eat in the States, hands down.
All in all, you’ll have to shop around. If you are in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, stop by the Automatic Restaurant for the best shawarma I've had ever. They have been in the business since the late 1970s.
I've heard, however, that their restaurant in Dubai doesn't have shawarma (can someone confirm this?). I was just in Abu Dhabi though and they are still the best (but only at their cafeteria - across the street from their restaurant - and only in the evenings).
El Reya - Damascus Syria Bab Touma
How to choose a shawarma restaurant
- Size of your Meat Does Matter -
Judge your restaurant by the size of their shawarma meat "towers"… usually if they have a huge one, it means lots of people go there. You can see them as you drive around. If your shwarma restaurant has one little tower with a thin over-cooked looking strip of meat on it and no line of customers outside then I would avoid it.
Also ask around, usually the more "blue collar" a person is, the better tasting and more authentic food they know about (I’ve found this to be true all around the world, for all types of traditional foods). Most restaurants serving shawarma tend to be street-type food joints rather than full service restaurants.
Most shawarmas are only cooked in the evenings as well (not for lunch usually).
Be careful of eating off of the street in less developed areas and in Egypt and Turkey. Though don’t be too careful, that’s where the good stuff is. Avoid raw vegetables in these areas on the street and ask your chef to cook the meat well and make sure you eat at a place that is well populated with local customers.
Never eat a shawarma from a place that does not have an upright cooker, no matter what they tell you. You'll just get some chopped chicken grilled on a regular grill - bland, boring, and not a shawarma.
The meat towers allow the meat to marinate in their own juices and cook on the outer layer inward, giving that special taste that you need and love. The juices also run down into the plate below and cook the tomatoes and other things that go into your sandwich.
Again: do not eat at a place that does not have an upright cooker for their shawarma, otherwise it is not a shawarma. You have been warned!
Shawarma Page 2 - - - Our Shawarma "Recipe"
Shawarma Page 3 - Readers Pick the Best Shawarma in the World
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