shawarma Image Credit: Oliver Clarke/ Gulf News

Dubai: Whether you are new to the UAE or have spent decades in the country, it doesn't take long to discover the special place shawarmas hold in the country's culinary landscape.

They can be found around every corner, and they are reputed to be absolutely delicious. However, Gulf News decided to investigate who makes the the best shawarma in the UAE?

The newspaper surveyed readers from across the country through online spot polls and email interviews.

Automatic Restaurant and Grill, which has several branches in the UAE, was the first choice for readers while the second favourite was Lebanese Flower Restaurant in Abu Dhabi.

Gulf News reader Farah Navder is a regular visitor at the Automatic Restaurant located along Al Rigga Street in Dubai. She said: "The shawarma at Automatic Restaurant and Grill is definitely the tastiest. The fries and generous dose of garlic sauce in it make it one of the best!"

Lebanese Flower Restaurant, near Electra Street, was the second most popular in the gulfnews.com poll, and often has a crowd of people and cars around it in the evenings, waiting for its "tasty and crispy" shawarma, according to Gulf News reader Abdul Razzaq.

And metal skewers lined with thick slices of boneless meat can be found in just about every locality in the UAE, often with huge crowds around the shawarma stand — people waiting for a quick bite.

Turkish origin

But where have these sandwiches originally come from?

Historically, shawarmas travelled from Turkey, where they are still known as "doner kebabs," or "turning kebabs". The word "shawarma" also has Turkish origins, as another name for the wrap in Turkey is "cevirme", which literally means "turning".

In Turkey, these rolls were made using minced meat, according to Dubai-based Emirati chef Khalil Mustafa. As the sandwich travelled across the Arab world, minced meat was replaced with thin shavings of meat — chicken, lamb or beef, sometimes even camel.

"Since the shawarma came to countries like Syria and Lebanon, it had many changes made to it like the type and quality of meat that is used." Mustafa, who works with the Dubai World Trade Centre hospitality team told Gulf News.

In its most basic form, a shawarma includes slivers of chicken or meat wrapped in pita bread. The add-ons include tahina (or sesame seed) sauce for meat and garlic paste for chicken, mixed with pickled cucumbers, fresh tomatoes and a healthy dose of shredded lettuce.

The authentic Arabic shawarma is made by marinating the meat in specific spices, which give the sandwich a distinct aroma.

With yoghurt and vinegar being added to the meat during the marination process, the sandwiches are low on spices and high on flavour.

"The difference in taste depends on the secret [recipes] of the chefs and the spices they use for marination. That is the real difference that you will find in flavours — based on the knowledge of the person who is making it," Mustafa said.

But these subtle difference become stronger as the shawarma comes to the UAE. The country probably plays host to more nationalities than any other in the region, and that has also affected the way shawarmas are made. So, the Arabic shawarma can often be seen masquerading in Mexican, Italian or Indian avatars.

Talking about the most fundamental change that has taken place in making shawarmas, Mustafa said: "The flavour of shawarmas has changed a lot. Originally, shawarmas were less spicy, but now you can find many spicy options in the market."

Bottles of chilli sauce, for one, can be spotted at various shawarma stands in the country, to cater to spice lovers.

Spicy varieties

"Whenever someone asks us to make the shawarma spicy, we add some hot sauce to it," one of the employees at Al Mallah restaurant, Al Diyafah branch in Dubai, said.

But the UAE's influence on shawarmas does not end with a bottle of hot sauce. More nationalities in the UAE obviously mean more cuisines available to customers, and the shawarma seems to have embraced these influences. From Indian shawarmas with a tandoori spice mix to Mexican ones with guacamole in tortilla bread or Thai shawarmas with peanut satay sauce, you get fusion shawarmas like nowhere else in the world. And with this unique ability to comfotably wrap international cuisines into its recipe, the shawarma makes sure it is the first thing that comes to your mind when you are looking for a quick bite.