Shawarma: the Arabic fast food

Chef says secret of making a good pita roll lies in the marination of meat.

  • A chef works on a skewer in a shawarma shop at Sharjah. A weekend evening is not complete without a visit to aImage Credit:Atiq-Ur-Rehman/Gulf News
  • A man eats a shawarma at a restaurant. Image Credit:Atiq-Ur-Rehman/Gulf News
Gulf News

Dubai: Late nights seem to always end with your car being led to the siren song of slow roasted meat and rotisserie machines. The comfort of biting into a pitta roll, the warm roast meat covered in tahini (sesame sauce), all washed down with a fruit juice cocktail - nothing describes weekend in Dubai like a late night stop at a shawarma stand.

"The secret of the shawarma is in the marinating," say Chef Ahmad Salaibi, Head Chef of the Automatic Restaurant at the Beach Centre in Jumeirah. "You need to marinate the meat for at least one day, preferably two, especially if its beef."

"There are two ways of cooking the shawarma. The vertical rotisserie spit is the common one, but the best way is to charcoal grill it on a horizontal spit," explains the 37-year-old chef. On the horizontal spit the meat is skewered evenly, not in a cone like in the vertical spit.

The shawarma's origin is traced back to Turkey, where it was called "çevirme", which means turning. And sharawma was one of 100 new words added to the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

"Shawarma is the Arabic fast food. The original shawarma recipe is Turkish and known as the Iskandar shawarma," says Salaibi. The common shawarmas are of chicken, meat or fish.

The chicken is halved and deboned, but the skin is left on. The marinade consists of lots of garlic, yogurt, ginger, lemon, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, dried lime, spicy paprika and vinegar and sometimes orange slices are added.

"When skewering the chicken the thigh is kept in the middle while the firmer breast meat forms the outer layers which helps hold the cone shape. After getting the skewer to about 30cm, the edges are smoothed out with a knife. The excess meat is placed in the center of the skewer and more chicken breast is placed around it to hold it in place. A skewer can hold up to 60kg of meat, which can all be used up in one night. "The key to the chicken shawarma is the garlic paste, which is made of corn flour, egg white, vegetable oil and garlic. All you add to that is French fries and pickles and that's the perfect chicken shawarma."

A leg of veal and a leg of lamb are used. The meat is sliced into very thin steaks. The marinade is vinegar- and garlic-based and contains ginger, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, dried limes and black pepper.

"The veal is very lean, so for every seven to eight centimetres of beef on the spit we put a few layers of lamb. This gives the necessary fat to prevent the meat from going dry. For every 40kg of meat you need 1kg of fat. So the white layer you see on the spit is the lamb," explains Salaibi.

The shredded meat is complemented with Tahini (sesame sauce), pickles and Mbasbas (onion, tomato, parsley and sumac salad).

"Fish Shawarma is not done here because it has to be charcoal grilled on a horizontal spit, which nobody has here," says the Chef. "With fish you have to be very experienced. Firstly, you only marinate for 90 minutes, and then you have to be very careful when grilling it. Also only Sawfish is used because it has very few bones and the flesh is firm enough to skewer."

The fish is cut into triangular shaped inch thick steaks and marinated in lemon, bay leaves, mustard seeds, caraway, and cinnamon.

The sandwich contains French fries, Mbasbas, cumin and thin slices of lemon.

"There are other kinds of shawarmas, but they are just a few changes in spices, like the Shish Tawouk and Mexican Shawarma that some restaurants do," says Salaibi. "Every chef tries to add his own spin on the dish."

"Lots of garlic paste, that's what makes a good chicken shawarma," says Mohammad Ahrari, a businessman from Iran. "It's my favourite fast food. The chicken must be juicy, other than that its pretty much the same sandwich anywhere you try it." Ahrari says he gets his favourite meal on the go about three to four times a week. "I like the shawarmas at Wafi Gourmet, that's where I usually go."

"I don't like the shawarmas here," says Ahmad Al Taweel, Public Relations Executive for RAK Bank. "I'm used to the shawarmas in Egypt, the food in Egypt just taste so much better. The spices they use are different here or maybe it's because the meat is imported, but I keep trying them at different places and I'm always disappointed. I love shawarmas, I eat them all the time in Egypt," says the Cairo native.

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