The Sensational Shawarma

March 6, 2008 by  


By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

The Middle East’s answer to fast food can be found in a tiny sandwich no longer than the palm of your hand. Often called ‘The Middle Eastern Taco’, the shawarma sandwich is the most popular item on the menu anywhere you travel in the Middle East with only minor variations depending upon the region. The word shawarma is actually the Turkish word for ‘turning’ and that is exactly how the shawarma is prepared. Piles upon piles of raw meat, either lamb or chicken, are compiled on a massive skewer until it resembles a giant cone. At the very top, a few heavy chunks of animal fat, lemons, tomatoes and garlic are attached. The meat then is set to spin on an automatic grilling device and it roasts all day as the fat and vegetables trickle down in a continuous drip, which keeps it moist and tender. Once the meat is cooked, it is sliced off in massive slivers and placed inside a fresh pita bread with hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and garlic sauce. Then it is tightly rolled and wrapped in wax paper where it remains only for a few seconds as there is always a hungry customer waiting to scoop it up!

Depending on which Middle Eastern country you are in, the shawarma has a few variations, although the meat is basically the same. For example, in Morocco, the shawarma is often served in sweetened flat bread dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. In other GGC countries, like Dubai, the shawarma has been modernized a bit and is often served in a hot dog bun. The sensational shawarma has wowed the taste buds of Mideast visitors from across the globe. In turn, those visitors have taken tales of the mouth-watering shawarma back home with them. Some have even opened up their very own restaurants that feature Middle East cuisine with an emphasis on the shawarma sandwich as the backbone of the menu. The sandwich can now be found in places like the U.S., Canada, Germany and Denmark–although the original ‘heart’ of the sandwich will always reside in the windswept deserts of the Middle East.

The buyer definitely needs to beware when purchasing the sandwich, especially in the Middle East. It is not uncommon to get food poisoning after eating a shawarma sandwich. On a busy day, the shawarma cone may not have enough time to cook completely as it cooks from the outside first while the inside remains raw, which creates an excellent atmosphere for bacteria to grow. The meat is often sliced off in a hurry and may be semi-raw–thus any existing bacterium may not have been killed by the heat of the grill and may go straight to the diner’s stomach.

Another problem with the shawarma is that the grilling device that cooks it generates a lot of heat, which is too much heat for it to be indoors. Quite often, restaurants will put the Shwarma grill outside their front door in close proximity to the road. As a result, the meat is exposed to car exhaust and dust from the roadside. Some Middle Eastern governments have been dealing with the situation by insisting that restaurants make a special enclosure specifically for the shawarma cone for the sake of public health. Only a handful of restaurants in the GCC are in full compliance with the required food safety regulations. With limited manpower, the health regulations are often not enforced and Shwarmas are still cooked on the polluted and congested streets.

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