All About Shawarma (Types, Seasoning, Marinades and Sauces)
Let’s embark on a journey exploring this Middle Eastern specialty that is cherrished around the globe. We dig into its roots, document its journey through different cultures, and find out what makes it so unique. Food and food culture enthusiasts: this article is for you!
Shawarma, which has recently seen a surge in worldwide popularity, is considered one of the most popular and delicious street foods. It is an indispensable part of Middle Eastern culinary culture. After learning more about this unique dish, you are bound to want to visit your nearest shawarma shop and grab a bite!
Fatty meat is essential to a delicious shawarma
Let’s take a look at the essentials of this irresistible dish. First of all, fatty meat. This can be chicken, lamb, mutton, beef, or even pork: the most crucial requirement is that it is fatty. Marinating with a special sauce is another must. Once the beautifully marinated fatty meat is skewered and cooked over an open fire, we call it shawarma.
Shawarma is a dish that needs to be cooked for a long time. This is the key secret to its special taste. But it cannot be left unattended, like other long-cooking dishes. A dish cooked on a direct flame needs to be constantly turned so that the inside cooks slowly.
As it cooks, the fat melts and keeps the inside moist, creating a soft, juicy meat. As the top layers are cooked, a thin slice is cut off, leaving the rest to continue cooking. The cut slices lie in a copper tray under the giant cylinder of meat awaiting a hungry customer.
Such a complicated meal is not easy to prepare at home. So those craving this delicious dish are ordering it more in restaurants. It is the most important fast food dish in the Middle East and the Balkans.
Technology is changing how shawarma is eaten and prepared. It can now be found cooked with gas rather than the traditional wood-fired stove. And the use of electric knives or cylindrical saws is replacing the traditional sword-like blades of the past. This is changing the habits and skills around both shawarma and döner mastery, as the craft is disappearing.
Shawarma differs from place to place. Every ingredient added to the shawarma, every marinade used, every way it is served takes us to a different city, a different country, or even another continent.
Different Types of Meats & Marinades Used for Shawarma
The meat and type of marinade determines the entire character of a shawarma. Shawarma is such a typical dish in the countries featured here that the meat and marinade used tells us quite a lot about the country’s general meat consumption and culinary preferences.
First of all, it should be noted that, lamb, chicken, and beef are most commonly used for shawarma. So what makes shawarma different, besides the type of meat used? The marinade, of course.
Shawarma Poultry Marinades
Let’s start with the most common marinade: vegetable oil, yogurt, and tomato paste for poultry. Although there are minor spice differences in Lebanon and Turkey, the same marinade is generally used.
In Syria, this marinade is enriched with a mixture of garlic and seven spices, and buttermilk is used in place of yogurt, and harissa in place of tomato paste.
In Greece, yogurt is used to marinate chicken, but not tomato paste. Instead, they use white wine vinegar. The spice mix is also quite different here than in the Middle East, with more Mediterranean dried herbs, such as oregano.
Since in Israel it is religiously forbidden to use meat and dairy products together, tahini is used in the marinade in place of yogurt. Another unique ingredient used here is schmaltz! Schmaltz is an Ashkenazi oil obtained from chicken skin. This is a must-have ingredient for the marinade, whether it’s turkey, the most consumed in Israel, or a mixture of lamb and veal.
Shawarma Red Meat Marinades
The marinade for red meat is, of course, very different from that used for poultry. Lamb or veal shawarma in Lebanon is marinated in a distinctive salty-water and vinegar. Fresh mint, thyme, parsley, black pepper, white pepper, bay leaf, and nutmeg flavors get thoroughly absorbed into the meat.
Lamb marinating is more straightforward in Syria, with a famous seven spice blend, garlic, and vegetable oil. For simple marinades, let’s look at Turkey. Red meat shawarma is rarely marinated. This is the only country where you can taste the meat alone, as shawarma made from ground or battered meat is usually only cooked with salt and lard.
As Egypt teaches us, red meat and poultry marinades do not always need to be different. Here they use a marinade that suits all types of meat! The meat is marinated over night in lemon juice and olive oil and a mixture of spices such as garlic, cumin, coriander, cardamom, and black pepper.
But suppose you wanted to experience all of these delicious variations. In that case, go to Saudi Arabia. Here you’ll find a wide variety as there is not specific traditional marinade. But there is a type of shawarma here that you probably won’t find anywhere else: Saudi goat shawarma. But this is a country where goat is eaten a lot, so this is no surprise.
Serving: Not Every Shawarma Comes in Pita!
When we think of Shawarma, we may think of a tomato, various greens, pickles, and thinly sliced meat served with a nice dressing all tucked into a pita. You can probably find this in every city in the world. So let’s have a look at some of the unique versions.
In Iraq, shawarma is wrapped in a large, thin pita, also known as lafa, rather than a pocket, and served with tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled turnips, and the unique amba and hummus. This shawarma has a unique flavor. It also comes in a bowl with tabbouleh and fattoush without a wrap.
In Lebanon, shawarmas are served in a way not often seen in other countries. The herbs placed on the meat inside the pita give the shawarma a refreshing taste, right to the end. Tahini sauce and onion accompany a lamb shawarma, and chicken shawarma is served with a delicious Lebanese garlic sauce.
Although traditionally-made shawarmas can be found in Saudi Arabia, shawarma culture has changed considerably in recent years. Due to the demographic structure of Saudi Arabia, there is a great variety of shawarma. In addition to the classic, served with pita and lavash, you can also find shawarmas served in hot dog buns, and baguettes have also become widespread. They also use the classic sandwich sauces that can be found in Europe.
Although most commonly served in a lavash wrap in Turkey, pita and bread are also used. Another feature unique to Turkey reveals the attitude towards shawarma there: a non-fast-food main course.
In fact, Iskender kebab, a kind of shawarma without rice, is a dish that originated when thinly sliced doner kebab was placed on a sliced, tomato sauce flavored pita and served with butter poured over it. Divine!
Sauces and Side Dishes: Shawarma Companions
Certain ingredients just go so well with Shawarma, and you can see them pretty much everywhere. Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, pickles, parsley, even French fries in recent years. Some of these shawarma companions are really unique, and are only served in certain parts of the world.
Let’s take a quick look at some of these shawarma companions. Onion with sumac. One of the most precious spices in the Middle East, it gives onions a delicious sour taste. This is one of the side dishes that suit shawarma the best, and you can see it frequently served in Turkey, Syria, and Israel.
It’s not very common to see tahini sauce in Turkey and Greece. However, it is almost indispensable in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. If you are eating shawarma in one of these countries and there is no tahini sauce, you should approach it with suspicion!
Another one of these culturally significant sauces is the magnificent eggless garlic mayonnaise (toum in Arabic). It is the most common shawarma sauce in Syria and Iraq. In these countries, a hot chili sauce called skhug is also used to increase the flavor.
But the pinnacle of the Syrian art of shawarma is, in my opinion, sour pomegranate syrup. Sour pomegranate syrup is widely used throughout the Middle East, but using it on shawarma is a Syrian tradition. It perfects the sweet-sour balance of the dish.
Let’s move on to another sweet-sour sauce. Iraq’s robust and spicy mango sauce, amba, is a kind of pickled mango. This chutney-like sauce is one of the most essential flavors that Iraq has brought to the culture of shawarma. As its reputation has grown, it has appeared in other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, it is almost as famous in Israel as it is in Iraq.
Turkey is shawarma heaven. You can see many different variations, depending on the region. Traditionally the dish is not consumed with a sauce in Turkey. The intense taste of the meat is what makes the Turkish shawarma (döner kebap) shine.
For example, goat and lamb shawarma (cağ kebap), made in eastern Turkey, is where you can taste the meat most intensely. However, shawarma is served with a tomato and pepper paste sauce mostly in regions with Arab communities. It is essential that the lavash is also covered with this sauce.
It is not uncommon to see ingredients used in the marinade also used in the sauce. In Tunisia and Egypt, harissa is often used in the marinade and as the basis of the sauce. And speaking of Tunisia, the delicious mechouia salad, which can be consumed on its own, is often served with shawarma.
This grilled vegetable, tomato, pepper, onion, and garlic salad is a delicious addition to any grilled meat! Going a bit further west, shawarma is accompanied by a more refreshing side dish. Tzatziki, a salted yogurt and cucumber dip, is one of the many things that make Greek shawarma absolutely delicious.
Worldwide, shawarma is made in various ways with different meats, ingredients, and spices and is served with a variety of side dishes. The versatility of this basic meal is the main reason it is so celebrated around the globe. If you enjoy spicy, aromatic, delicious meat, don’t be afraid to try it the next time you see a shawarma rotating in front of a flame.