Shawarma: A Comprehensive Guide

shawarma wrap

Shawarma is not an altogether familiar word for most. Upon seeing it, most would assume that they are looking at some sort of burrito or even a gyro. However, it’s actually a Levantine dish, born out of the Eastern part of the Mediterranean. 

Despite its similarity to what many would consider to be Mexican food, Shawarma hails from the opposite side of the planet.

From a cultural perspective, it’s a unique example of how similarities from different regions are not rare. 

Shawarma is decidedly different from what you would consider to be a burrito and the ingredients have evolved over the years to give it some more variety. 

Shawarma meaning and etymology

From the Arabic شَاوِرْمَا‎ (šāwirmā) or شَاوَرْمَا‎ (šāwarmā), from Ottoman Turkish چویرمه‎ (çevirme, “something that is spun or turned over”), from چویرمك‎ (çevirmek, “to turn over.”)

Shawarma pronunciation

What is Shawarma?

Once upon a time, Shawarma consisted of meat that was very thinly sliced and the meat was either lamb meat or mutton. Now, that meat can be almost anything, including goat, beef, chicken, or turkey.

The thinly sliced meat is placed on a Pita and combined with any variety or combination of hummus, pickles, tahini or garlic sauces (more on that below), and just about any kind of vegetable.

The meat is actually sliced as it is grilled so it’s about as fresh on the pita as you can possibly get it. 

As a large “cone-shaped” slab of meat rotates on what is essentially a spit, the outer edges of the meat that cooks first are sliced off. 

What is Shawarma made of?

At its most basic level, shawarma is thinly sliced lamb, with the addition of your choice of vegetables and a unique sauce (Tahini sauce if you want to stick with originalism), all of which are stuffed into a folded pita.

The beauty of the shawarma is how customizable it is. Because anything that is placed inside of a folded pita, taco shell, corn tortilla, flour tortilla, or even a large slice of bread leaves a lot of room for the imagination. 

Along with all of the vegetables, hummus, meats, pickles, or anything else that goes into your Shawarma, you can also add a number of sauces:

Toum sauce

The sauce called “toum” (Arabic for garlic) is made mostly with garlic, eggs whites and vegetable oil. This may seem like an odd combination but it is the perfect marinade for chicken shawarma.

Yogurt Garlic Sauce 

Typically served on Greek Gyros, yogurt garlic sauce is a thick and creamy sauce with a unique flavor that goes well on a Shawarma.

Tahini Sauce

This sauce makes the most sense on a beef Shawarma because it comes from the same area and was practically designed to go with it. It’s a derivative of sesame and you can thicken or thin it with water.

Tarator Sauce

Not to be confused with Tartar sauce, Tarator sauce is a modified Tahini sauce with the addition of extra lemon juice and garlic. It is typically served with beef Shawarma.

Where is Shawarma From?

Shawarma is a dish that owes its origins to Middle Eastern cuisines, primarily from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Like so many other interesting foods in the world, it has been co-opted by a variety of different cultures, each adding their own, unique spin on the original. 

At its essence, Shawarma is still Shawarma, however, despite the additions.

It’s almost like taking a cheeseburger and adding a variety of vegetables, sauces, and cheeses to it. At the end of the day, it’s still a cheeseburger. 

Despite the evolution of Shawarma from its roots, the core recipes remain much the same, regardless of where in the world it is served.

Of course, that leads us to our next point when it comes to the changes and varieties of Shawarma.

Shawarma Variations

If you have spent much time traveling throughout the Middle East, you would have observed the fact that Shawarma doesn’t change much from region to region.

In Syria and Lebanon, the garlic sauce that is served with the sandwich depends on what type of meat is used in its preparation. The sauce known as “Toum” is usually served with chicken Shawarma. On the other hand, the sauce known as “Tarator” which is made out of garlic and Tahini sauce, lemon and water is served with beef Shawarma.

In Tunisia (North Africa), Shawarma is fast food, served in much the same way as you would get a burger from Mcdonald’s. Their contribution to Shawarma includes nothing more than a vast array of different sauces that they use, rather than just yogurt garlic, or tahini sauce. 

Nigerians added their own unique twist to the recipe by going with either beef or chicken and including chili and mayonnaise, neither of which was present in the original recipe. 

Mexicans call it the “Arabian Taco” and they use corn tortillas rather than pita bread and a chipotle/garlic sauce rather than Tahini or yogurt sauce.

Shawarma vs Gyro

The biggest difference between Shawarma and Gyros is how the meat is seasoned before it is cut and placed on the pita. This is mainly a reflection of cultural tastes between Greeks and Arabs. Both of these cultures have developed native taste preferences over the centuries so their meats are going to be flavored differently.

Shawarma Seasoning

Shawarma, regardless of which meat is used, is generally seasoned in turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon.

Those meats are usually turkey, lamb, or chicken, rather than beef or goat, even though both of the latter are represented in Middle Eastern food culture as well. 

Gyro Seasoning

The meat that goes into Gyros, on the other hand, is traditionally seasoned with thyme, rosemary, and oregano.

Notice that neither the meats in Greek culture nor those in Arab culture have any seasonings that are the same.

It’s mostly a product of what is available in the areas both now and in centuries past. 

Shawarma vs Falafel

Shawarma and Falafel share origins in the Middle East and both are considered to be Middle Eastern foods today.

However, you would probably be hard-pressed to find two more different foods in terms of both appearance and ingredients.

Falafel is basically a ball consisting primarily of chickpeas.

The ball can be smothered in various seasonings or hummus and is placed in a pita with a choice of different vegetables like lettuce.

The only similarity between falafels and shawarma is that they both end up inside pita bread.

Outside of that, they couldn’t be more different in taste, texture, process, and ingredients.

Final thoughts

There are about a thousand ways to make Shawarma and you will probably find that most of them are delicious variations on an already excellent original. 

Shawarma has been around for a long time and is largely considered to be street food in most Middle Eastern countries.

If you ever come across a street vendor selling fresh-made Shawarma, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

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