If you’re one of the very few who has watched Marvel’s The Avengers movie (yes, I’m being ironic), you may have noticed a scene where Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) mentions a famous Middle Eastern dish: “There’s a Shawarma joint about two blocks from here,” he says, “I don’t know what it is, but I wanna try it.”
You’re probably not aware of this, but a post-credits scene in the movie shows all the Avengers together eating….you guessed it, Shawarma.
After the movie opened, sales of Shawarma in Los Angeles went through the roof. Pessimists would probably describe moviegoers as “sheep”, but the optimist in me would like to thank The Avengers for popularizing an incredibly tasty dish.
But what exactly is Shawarma?
Shawarma – An Overview
Nicknamed “the Arabian Taco“, Shawarma is basically sliced cuts of meat. The word originates from the Turkish word “Chevirme” which means “to turn”. The meat can be chicken, beef, goat, lamb or turkey and is usually placed on a long solid rod called a spit.
The meat rotates for a long period of time: this way, it slowly roasts on all sides. Shavings are then cut off the meat. Though it can be served on a plate, perhaps the most popular version of Shawarma is the sandwich type, with the meat rolled up in Pita bread, flatbread, or any regional bread variety.
Most Shawarma joints will add Hummus (a spread made from ground chickpeas), Tahini (a paste made from ground Sesame seeds), pickles and vegetables. Chicken Shawarma is usually served with a garlic mayonnaise spread called “Toum“.
Shawarma sandwiches or platters are often served with a side order of French fries or a Middle Eastern salad called “Tabbouleh“.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where Shawarma first originated. Some say that the Turkish city of Bursa was the first to serve it in the 19th century. Others claim it was first discovered in Lebanon.
Frankly, no one seems to know for sure. And why should we care anyway? As long as it’s good, it really shouldn’t matter!
Shawarma regional variations
The interesting thing about this mouthwatering dish is the way your Shawarma experience can differ from region to region.
Syrian Shawarma eateries usually add a Pomegranate sauce to their sandwiches.
In Saudi Arabia, almost no Shawarma joints can be found during the day, they all open at night.
In the Philippines (where the dish spread mostly through Filipinos working in the Middle East), eateries add a hot chili sauce with their Shawarma and sometimes soak it in a sweet marinade similar to a Teriyaki sauce.
Shawarma is mostly considered to be a type of street food, usually purchased from street vendors and eaten on the go.
Sometimes, the method of cooking Shawarma outdoors has caused some problems, such as in the UAE, where outdoor Shawarma cooking was banned for health concerns.
In India, a young student named Sashin Mathews died of food poisoning after eating Shawarmas from a local restaurant. However, the restaurant was based in the Kerala region of India, which is known for its eateries lacking the most basic hygiene requirements.
Just make sure that you purchase your Shawarma from a clean, reputable eatery.
Here’s an important point to remember about this great dish: NEVER eat Shawarma from an eatery that does not use an upright cooker i.e. a spit. The centerpiece of a good Shawarma is the way the “meat tower” placed on a spit leads to the meat becoming marinated in its own juices.
A Shawarma without a spit is just bland chopped grilled meat. Who wants to eat that?
Another significant detail to take into consideration is the type of meat used. If it is too lean, the meat will be too dry and tasteless. However, if it contains too much fat, the Shawarma will be too oily.
Cook your own Shawarma at home
It is fairly easy to cook your own Shawarma at home. Though it won’t be the same without the spit/cone tower, you can come really close to replicating that great taste.
The first step is to buy some meat from your local butcher or supermarket and ask them to slice it very thin.
As for the recipe itself, a lot depends on personal taste. You can find hundreds of different ways to make Shawarma on the web.
Christian is a Lebanese blogger with a keen interest in Middle Eastern dishes as well several other types of cuisine. He also enjoys writing about social media, sports and many other topics.