BEIRUT: The key to a good shawarma isn’t the spices, it’s the chef. Now the spices matter, sure. So does the marinade before the meat is stacked and hits the flame.
But if you want a really good shawarma – skewered meat cooked upright and served in flat bread – you need a good shawarma chef, restaurant owners say.
What’s important is a shawarma master who cuts the raw meat by hand and then stacks it thickly around the rotating metal skewer. You need someone who knows when the meat is cooked, and how to balance the right ingredients in the bread.
Most importantly you need a steady hand, one that will cut from the cooked meat the same way every time. Too thin and the shawarma is dry and chewy, too thick and it can cut into the raw part.
When the shawarma chef goes on vacation, everyone can tell the difference, restaurant owners say.
“Naturally a shawarma master is important,” said Fadi from Bliss House in Beirut.
Other restaurant owners agree: A good chef is indispensable.
“One of the secrets of shawarma is the spices,” said Joseph Fayad from Abu Shanab in Gemmayzeh. However, he said, the spices used at restaurants are generally the same – the trick is getting the process right.
Shawarma is a staple in Lebanese street cuisine. The wrap traditionally comes in chicken or beef, but can also be had in kafta and soujouk varieties, as well as lamb and occasionally turkey. For Lent, at least one shawarma shop is serving up fish.
A good shawarma chef will complement each meat with the right balance of condiments. A dollop of garlic mayonnaise, a scoop of cooked tomatoes or a few French fries to suck up the juices, to be used as each sandwich warrants. The condiments are followed by a clean cut of the skewer, which tumbles the cooked meat into the open sandwich.
What happens next separates your run-of-the-mill shawarma chef from the seasoned hand. It’s the routine of the finished shawarma, a ritual done with such practice and reverence it borders on the mystical.
With a flourish, a completed sandwich is rubbed against the stack of shawarma meat, or splashed in the juice dripping tray. It’s touched to the flame, or left to rest against the gas grill. Many sandwiches are placed on a warming tray, patted and tapped onto the sides of the metal back splash before being spun into a paper wrapper. A practiced routine means a practiced chef.
The word shawarma comes from the Turkish word “chevirme,” meaning to turn. And the turning is important. The faster the shawarma turns, the fresher the cuts of meat are when they reach the sandwich.
This also means it’s tough to find an undiscovered ‘off the beaten path’ shawarma: a shawarma stack that waits all day for a trickle of customers is at risk for overcooking.
Often the best places for shawarma are the most sought-after. Big names such as Bliss House and Barbar are shawarma stand-bys for a reason; the lines are long and the stacks keep turning with juicy, perfectly cooked meat.
Other popular and tasty shawarmas can be had at long-standing establishments such as Boubouffe in Ashrafieh, which combines a shawarma stand with a wood-paneled dinner environment, and al-Ajami, which has been a favored seaside hangout for decades along the Ramlet al-Baida corniche.
“The chef has a special sauce and the shawarma is delicious every day,” said Eliane while standing outside Boubouffe, where they cook with coals instead of gas, giving the food a slightly different flavor.
Shawarma-centric restaurants are on the rise as well, and include the recently opened El-Bash now operating on the Ain al-Mreisseh corniche. It offers at least four different types of shawarma at a time, while Abu Shanab in Gemmayzeh is offering fish shawarma for Lent.
Like the breakfast mankousheh, shawarma is an everyman’s food. It’s a meal for a few thousand lira that cuts across most divides in the country.
“I believe that shawarma is not only a cheap food; We have a lot of big shots like CEOs and bank executives passing by getting shawarma,” said Fayad at Abu Shanab.