Shawarma (Arabic شاورما) is the hugely popular dish of slowly roasted or braised meat, eaten as a sandwich in pita bread but also on a plate, a recipe which is also called kebab.
What is the origin of shawarma?
Kebab is a dish of long tradition, that has received worldwide success thanks to the commercial skills of the Turks, who spread their version called döner kebab, a version inherited from the Ottoman Empire.
The word shawarma derives from the Turkish word çevirme, which means “it turns”. This is the recipe of the typical Middle Eastern kebab, similar in some respects to the Greek gyro.
In Arabic, shawarma also means “turning” because the meat, usually lamb, but also beef or poultry, is marinated and is then cooked along a vertical spit that rotates for a long time. It is then cut into strips and served in a sandwich in pita bread or laffa bread.
The invention of this sandwich dates back to the second half of the twentieth century. According to some sources, it was attributed to Mehmet Aygun, a Turk who, in the 1970s in Berlin, had the idea of adapting the traditional kebab to the fast food that was spreading at the time.
Other sources say that it is rather another Turkish named Kadir Nurmar, who, in the 1970s, had the brilliant idea to create the döner kebab by placing the grill vertically and choosing pita bread to make it a sandwich.
It is clear that it was at this time, in the 1970s that the doner kebab started spreading in Germany, then in the rest of Europe and throughout the world, with its variants. They include the gyros in Greece, the shawarma in the Middle East and the al pastor in Mexico.
Although the same word kebab, whose meaning is “to roast” has Turkish origins, the roots of this dish are very old. One of the earliest evidence of its existence is found in Kyssa-i-Yusuf in 1377, one of the earliest texts where the word “kebab” appears. But the origins of this dish are difficult to tie to a specific place.
Cooking meat was one of the first methods of cooking; and this way of cooking has spread widely and especially among the nomadic populations of the Asian steppes.
From the thirteenth century, kebab became a luxury food served in the Indian royal court and much sought after by the sultans and widespread throughout the Middle East.
Other testimonies come to us from Persia, where the warriors roasted the meat, skewering it with their sabers, and then setting it on a coal fire.
Even the nomadic Germanic peoples lived mainly from hunting and roasted game.
Further back in time, in Homer’s Odyssey, it is said that the heroes cooked their meat “on the spit”.
In short, everything shows that the act of cooking meat on the fire is much older than the Middle Ages.
How to make shawarma
The meats used to make a shawarma are lamb, mutton, chicken, turkey, or goat; the beef variant is also very common, by itself or mixed with other meats.
Shawarma is prepared by marinating and then skewering the thin slices of meat, on a long pin placed vertically. The last layer at the top is usually lamb fat.
The cooking process is unique because the fire is not under the spit, but on the side, arranged vertically over the entire length of the spit. During the cooking of the shawarma, the fat melts slowly, dripping on the meat, to which it gives its characteristic flavor.
In order to keep the meat fat and flavorful at the time of consumption, the meat must be cut lengthwise, from the lower part of the block of meat, which gradually takes the shape of an inverted cone.
Shawarma is widespread throughout the Middle East, but with the name kebab, the dish has had tremendous success, even throughout the Western world, becoming a widely consumed street food.
Of course, shawarma can be prepared at home and without a vertical spit. Cooking shawarma in the oven requires to cook the whole piece of meat for a long time and cut it afterward, as described in the recipe below.
Today, raw pre-cut slices of shawarma are sold in some grocery stores. Even if the final result is not the same, whether it is the taste, texture or the visual, it is still a very good alternative.
The most famous version of shawarma is served in pita bread with salad, cucumbers, tomatoes and various sauces and condiments more or less spicy without forgetting the ubiquitous hummus. It is often accompanied by fries or fried potatoes.
The versions of shawarma around the world
Iskender kebab is one of the most popular recipes in Turkey. It is a döner kebab, with the particularity that the meat is spread with butter and sprinkled with a tomato sauce.
Cağ kebab is a typical specialty of the central part of Turkey, especially the province of Erzurum. The marinated meat, mainly lamb or mutton, is actually cut into strips directly on the spit with a large knife. Its cooking is horizontal. The roast lamb is served in a dish with lavash bread, chopped onions, tomatoes and green peppers.
Adana kebab, which takes its name from the city of Adana, in southern Turkey. It is minced lamb flavored with black pepper, chili pepper, but sometimes other spices such as garlic, paprika or cumin.
Urfa kebab is a similar but less spicy version from Urfa, a city in southeastern Turkey.
Testi kebab, popular in central Anatolia and the Turkish Black Sea region where there is a very special tradition: meat and vegetables are cooked together in a clay pot called testi. The most picturesque thing is the service. Indeed, the seal that keeps the container closed is broken directly on the table to reveal a luscious and fragrant content.
Beyti kebab: the presentation is also a highlight of this other Turkish recipe of Swiss inspiration. In 1961, opens in Switzerland the homonymous restaurant of Istanbul, Beyti Güler. Beyti Güler had seen how a Swiss butcher named Möller prepared his meat and had the idea of bringing the two traditions together.
Shish kebab is traditionally prepared with lamb, but today it is also prepared with chicken, beef, as well as fish and especially swordfish, cut into cubes and marinated with oil, lemon juice and spices.
The pieces are skewered with peppers and onions and cooked on the grill. Usually, this specialty is served in a dish with rice and grilled vegetables. When the main ingredient is chicken, it’s called shish taouk (or shish tawook), a very popular dish in the Middle East. In Lebanon in particular, people like to accompany it with a garlic sauce.
Chelow kebab is considered the national dish of Iran. The peculiarity is that the meat, flavored with sumac, is served with saffron-flavored rice, all seasoned with butter. A version of it accompanied by koobideh, is a version made with ground meat.
Kabab tors is popular along the Iranian coast in the Caspian Sea. It is prepared with a typical marinade of the region, including tangy flavors. The meat kebabs, before being cooked on the grill, are flavored for an entire night with chopped nuts, garlic, oil and pomegranate molasses.
Kabab halabi is very popular in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. This recipe mixes ground lamb or beef, with spices such as sumac, and dried fruits (pine nuts or almonds). Another important element is the tomato sauce with which the meat is served.
Souvlaki is one a popular version of traditional kebab from Greece and Cyprus. Pork is usually marinated in white wine, mint and pepper but it can also be prepared with chicken. It is accompanied by pita, tzatziki sauce and vegetables, usually green salad, onion and tomatoes.
Gyro is another popular Greek recipe.
Shami kebab is the most famous variant of the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, you can enjoy these fluffy meatballs. The lamb is cooked with spices and ground with chickpeas, eggs, cinnamon, mint, coriander and ginger. With the mixture, you get ground meatballs that are finally fried and served with different sauces, but also simply with white rice.
Čevapi is a type of traditional kebab from the Balkan region, a region that has long been influenced by the Ottoman Empire. The appearance is reminiscent of sausages or meatballs (köfte kebab). Ground beef is mixed with lamb or pork.
Tacos al pastor. The traditions of the Middle East have traveled around the world and it is not difficult to find them on other continents. When Lebanese immigrants arrived in Mexico in the early twentieth century, they brought their spit-roasted shawarma with them. Local farming communities started to learn from this method by replacing lamb with pork. The ingredients of the marinade also began to include local ingredients, such as pineapple juice, and the tortilla took the place of the pita.
Chislic: in another region of the American continent, and more precisely in South Dakota, it is a famous variant of the shish kebab. The term chislic refers to cubes of fried beef, lamb or venison seasoned with garlic salt. They are often accompanied by crackers.
Babek: Italian kebab made with lamb or mutton, friggitelli pepper, radicchio, romaine lettuce, pecorino, stracciatella, and olives.
Whether in Turkey or Greece, Israel or Syria, Jordan or Iraq, France, Germany or the USA, shawarma is the popular sandwich that can be enjoyed almost anywhere, during the day, or in the middle of the night.
It is the savior of hungry students, the patron saint of night owls, the true common dish to all the cities in which people wander, hungry, after midnight. A complete meal with proteins, carbohydrates, and vegetables.
With or without fries, with or without yogurt sauce, with or without spice, with or without onion: a choice able to unite as much as to divide people, couples and friendships.
- 4 lb leg of lamb or shoulder of lamb boneless (or 4 lb turkey or chicken breast or thighs, deboned and skinless)
- 2 scallions , sliced
- 1 cup water
- 1 freshly squeezed lemon
- 8 cloves garlic , peeled
- 2 shallots peeled and cut in 2
- 7 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
- 3 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon sumac
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 2 teaspoons fine salt
- Place all the ingredients of the marinade in a food processor and mix everything until obtaining a paste.
- Place the scallion at the bottom of a Dutch oven.
- Dry the meat and brush it with the previously mixed paste over its entire surface.
- For the lamb, also brush the inside where the bone has been removed. Place the lamb on the onion slices, with the opening on the bottom and the fat on the top.
- For the poultry, place it on the onion slices.
- Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 12 hours.
- Remove the meat from the refrigerator 2 hours and 30 minutes before cooking and leave it at room temperature.
Preheat a convection oven to 320 F (160°C).
- Pour the water into the Dutch oven or cast iron pot all around the meat (do not pour water directly on the meat).
- Using a brush, brush the meat with half the lemon juice.
- Cover and cook for 45 minutes for the poultry or 2 hours 30 for the lamb.
To make sure that the top of the meat is brown, brush the meat with the remaining lemon juice and continue cooking for 30 minutes (for the poultry) or 1 hour (for the lamb).
Check the meat: If the Dutch oven seems dry, then add about ¼ to ½ cup (50 to 100 ml) of boiling water all around the meat. If the meat seems too dark, cover it lightly with aluminum foil.
- For the poultry, continue cooking for 15 minutes.
- For the lamb, continue cooking until the meat can easily be shredded with forks. This step can last up to about 1 hour.
- If the lamb still seems hard, continue cooking until tender, checking every 20 minutes, and make sure that the top does not burn and that there is enough sauce in the bottom. If not, add a little boiling water around the meat again.
- Remove the meat from the oven. Put it on a cutting board.
- Leave it to rest for a few minutes before cutting it into small strips.
- Drizzle the meat with all the remaining juice in the bottom of the Dutch oven and serve.
Serve the shawarma on a plate with rice, roasted vegetables, hot pita bread, yogurt, zhug (hot sauce), labneh, hummus and/or tahini sauce or serve it as a sandwich in hot pita bread with some of these fillings.
Shawarma is also often served with diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, as well as roasted peppers, eggplants and/or French fries.