In search of the perfect shawarma
The perfect shawarma is a piece of sheer culinary genius. A Middle Eastern delicacy comprised of chunky slices of spiced chicken or lamb stacked inside a rolled up inside a soft piece of delectable Arab bread, this mouth-watering snack-doubled up-as-a-meal has the perfect tumble of heat, spice, tang and sweetness, all exploding in your mouth, creating an indescribable sensation of happiness and well-being.
I was first introduced to this culinary masterpiece in 2007 when I first set foot in the Middle East. My initial reluctance to try it was followed by a phase of severe addiction, where I took to having one shawarma every day, hooked to its taste and subtle essence. Needless to say, I became its fan for life.
However, getting hold of that perfect Shawarma is proving to be increasingly difficult these days, with coffee shops doling out their own interpretations of this Arabian classic. Most of them have the meat drowning in tahina, hummus, tomato ketchup, raw vegetables and hot sauce, not to mention, French Fries (!!!), masking the original delicate flavors. One bite of this poor imitation, and you’re left with an unpleasant sensation that maybe, your money was better spent elsewhere.
After countless failed attempts to get hold of the perfect shawarma, I tried to speak with restaurant and coffee shop owners to find out why there were so many unappetizing versions of the original delicious item. My first stop was a tiny coffee shop on Muroor Road, Abu Dhabi, frequented by office-goers. The chef in charge of the shawarma section is Abdulla, a native of Kerala, who “has been making Shawarma for twenty years.” He claims that the demand for shawarma has doubled over time, especially in the last five years. “Shawarma is a meal on-the-go, and not very expensive either. So people love to grab on their way to work, or in the evenings, back home.” So far, so good. But why different versions in different shops?
“That depends on the chef,” Abdulla said, with a smile. “Basically, people love a dish that is sweet, spicy and sour at the same time. So we make sure to add different sauces such as Tahina, hummus or even ketchup, along with vegetables and meat, to give them the complete experience.”
“Ketchup? Why? That is not part of the original dish, is it?’ I persisted.
“Who cares? People seem to love it. Some people ask for extra ketchup, so we make sure to add it,” Abdulla said.
“What about those who don’t like Ketchup?”
“Well, we do have people who don’t like Ketchup. For them, we add extra hummus or tahina, as per their request,” Abdulla said, before turning back to a small window from where the orders were coming in.
At my friend’s behest, I made it a point to try the shawarma at a certain cafeteria in Karama, Dubai. Not only was it dunked in ketchup, but it had the greasiest fries and an unappetizing dose of cold, raw, julienned cabbages and carrots. Revolted, I made my way to the counter to speak to Faris, the owner. “Everyone likes French Fries, ma’m, they add an extra crunch. So we add them.”
“What about the raw vegetables?”
“Vegetables are healthy, m’am, that’s why.”
“Well, that’s true, but why raw. Isn’t it possible to sauté them or introduce them to the fire for at least a few seconds?”
“That’s an option we are looking at,” Faris refused to say more.
The only good shawarma I’ve tasted in the UAE is from Fawar-Al Lebanon, a Lebanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi. With the perfect combination of chicken/beef, to bread, shawarmas here are delicious and addictive, and stand out for their lack of any kind of sauce or raw vegetables. However, the only drawback is the addition of the French Fries, which actually don’t need to be there. Mind you, I love French Fries, but only where they belong-as additions to a plate of fast food, not inside shawarmas.
So where exactly can I get the best, most authentic chicken/lamb/beef shawarma? My search continues….