The shawarma stand is the emirate's pizzeria or even its fish 'n' chips joint - a place where people of all cultures come to meet and eat.

Scene 1

Waiter: Salam Aleikum.

Customer: What sandwiches do you have?

Waiter: Meat shawarma, chicken shawarma, spicy meat, liver, kidneys, chicken mayonnaise, shrimp and squid, jumbo shrimps, hamburger, special hamburger, lamb with yogurt, kebab sandwich, etc.

Customer: Give me two shrimp and two chicken mayonnaise sandwiches.

Waiter: OK, and any juice?

Customer: Avocado with milk. How much is it all?

Waiter: Dh18.

I don't know of anyone who has ever suffered food poisoning after eating food so cheap. Welcome to the very unique world of Dubai's cafeterias. According to an online encyclopedia, a cafeteria is "a type of food service location in which there is little or no table service, whether a restaurant or within an institution such as a large office building or school... Cafeterias are different from coffeehouses, although that is the Spanish meaning of the English word".

To us in Dubai, the story of the cafeteria is a true tale of the mixing of cultures. What started off as a Lebanese shawarma stand concept was embraced by the Indian community, which introduced its own variations on the Levant's flagship sandwich and also used the same method to introduce its own meats and sauces. Also worth mentioning are customer-driven innovations such as the famous toasted shawarma known as 'Hassan Matar' - no one seems to know exactly why, a safe assumption might be that it was named after its creator.

Scene 2

Waiter: Salam Aleikum.

Customer: What juices do you have?

Waiter: Apple, Mango, Orange, Lemon, Lemon Mint, Cocktail, Cocktail with Ice Cream, Aboud cocktail, Burj Al Arab cocktail, Dubai cocktail, Emirati cocktail, Al Nasr cocktail, Al Ahli cocktail, Jumeirah cocktail, Talyani cocktail, Computer cocktail, Blackberry cocktail, Mercedes cocktail, Ferrari cocktail, etc.

Customer: Give me a computer cocktail.

Waiter: large?

Customer: Yes, large. How much?

Waiter: Dh10.

No customer ever gets out of the car. The cafeteria doesn't really want you to get out, either. You pass by Ijaza Cafeteria on Jumeirah Beach Road, make your order, take a five minute cruise, make a U-turn at the next traffic lights, pick up your sandwiches and juice and then park by the beach and eat outside the car. You also look forward to the pickles - the pickles are very good.

I remember I travelled to Jeddah when I was young and had a sandwich from the Saudi equivalent of our cafeterias. It was very strange, I thought to myself: they actually put the shawarma in the samoon bread! So it was the same basic experiment, but with slightly different ingredients. This is very typical of the Gulf as a region, I thought a few years later - the same, but different.

Another cafeteria worth mentioning is the famous Jabal Al Nour cafeteria, off the equally famous Diy-afah Street, near Satwa. This street had its heyday from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, when it was the place to see and be seen. It was not unusual then to see royals, VIPs and everyone else cruising down the street in anything from Lamborghinis to Hondas. Fans of the rap group NWA hung out at Hardees - that was where you wanted to be.

Jabal Al Nour was the undisputed leader in the cafeteria world. Stories were told of people travelling from Abu Dhabi and Sharjah just to have a sandwich and a juice there and then drive back. All this was partly due to the incredible personality and fanbase of Abdul Rahman; a likable, funny, yet humble delivery man. I don't know where Abdul Rahman is now, but Jabal Al Nour is still in business and it has branches everywhere, having bought out a few other chains. Business is good and so are the shawarmas. My favourite order is meat shawarma with everything, plus cheese and Tabasco, washed down with an avocado and milk cocktail. Order that and you should have a big smile on your face in a very short period of time.

The shawarma stand is perhaps Dubai's pizzeria, its tapas bar, or even its fish 'n' chips joint. Well, whatever it is, because of the locations, the ordering experience, the waiters' willingness to reiterate the menu almost infinitely, it has worked well. The cafeteria remains popular with Emiratis and Arabs looking for a local meal, South Asians after a different take on Indian recipes and Europeans and others who want an interesting, Dubai-specific urban experience.

When I was young, I remember my father would never let us have meat shawarmas - we were only allowed chicken. He used to say: "Chicken is better; the meat is not clean there". I never understood this because I always preferred the meat and I didn't really believe him. Over the years, items have come and gone from the menu, but the shawarma has remained the undisputed favourite. Occasionally, my father calls me on his way home and says: "I'm getting some shawarma, you want some?" And I say: "Yes, but meat for me." He still has chicken.

Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE.

Your comments

I was very surprised here to learn that one of the most famous Mexican street food, "tacos al pastor", is in fact Shawarma that the (numerous) Lebanese immigrants took with them and adapted to the local taste. In Puebla, one of the places in Mexico with more Arab immigrants, they still call it "tacos arabes" when served on pita bread. Now you say you add avocado and tabasco to the mix here in Dubai... it feels like Mexico is giving something in return for the favour!
Jose Luis Hidalgo
Posted: June 07, 2009, 14:32

I like these cafeterias too. Its an affordable place for many. If they improve their hygiene standards, it will a place for everyone. Dont really know some times what would be their profit margins?? But UAE would be incomplete without them.. specially coz of their late trading hours.. cheerss!!
Posted: June 07, 2009, 12:59

Shawarma is surely the best meal available within walking distance. My family just loves it while I wonder whether I could get a vegetarian shawarma as I do not eat meat. The cafeterias serve a variety of juices and milkshakes and have an interesting menu card. But eventually the shawarma is the winner. It is a wholesome meal and is an all time favourite of most people here.
Naina Nair
Posted: June 07, 2009, 12:54

yea shawarma is fantastic food, in so many cases i preffered shawarma, first when I have light appetite, second when I am in hurry, 3rd when i bored from routine eating specially on holiday night I am taking twice with cocktail juice when come to dubai never miss this experience by eating shawrma on road side resturant
Daud Khan Bangash
Posted: June 07, 2009, 11:15

Having grown up in Dubai, I could identify with the sentiments of the author. Well written! Shawarma rocks! :)
Rakesh Nandakumar
Posted: June 07, 2009, 09:44