How Ecuador Fell in Love with Shawarma
Abdalah Salec Labeid of Shawarma Riad. All photos by the author.

How Ecuador Fell in Love with Shawarma

Ecuador's relatively lax immigration policy continues to make it an attractive destination for people from the Middle East, and they're bringing their food traditions with them.
March 23, 2016, 6:00pm

A slab of meat slowly rotates on a shawarma spit, the fat glistening in the sun. A man takes a knife and carves a piece. He drops it into his mouth before his boss sees.

He's not in Beirut or Istanbul. He's in Quito, a small Andean city in Ecuador, 2,800 meters above sea level.

It's not something you expect to see in a city known for volcanoes and dizzying altitude. But despite the odds, shawarma has become a hit.

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In the business district alone, between the Peruvian Embassy, the Sheraton, and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Labor, there are five shawarma restaurants—each desperately trying to stand out.

Faraon 2 has gone for an Egyptian theme, decorating its walls with paint-by-numbers murals of pyramids and the Great Sphinx.

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Meze at El Arabe in Quito, Ecuador. Photos by the author.

Further down the street at Alowarmi, there is rock and roll shawarma, complete with fake record players, photos of Bon Jovi, Santana, and a supersized picture of Slash.

Some shops play reggaeton, while others blast compilations of Arabic music. And in each of them are throngs of Quiteños skillfully handling the lettuce-filled wrap.

So, how did Ecuador discover a taste for shawarma? And why is it so popular?

In a word: immigration.

Since 1875, there has been a constant flow of Lebanese immigrants to Ecuador, first fleeing the Ottoman Empire, and then the aftermath of World War I and II.

By 1986, there were 97,500 Lebanese immigrants in Ecuador. It's a small community but an influential one.

Three Ecuadorian presidents were of Lebanese descent, as was the general secretary of the Communist Party. Even Nicasio Safadi—Ecuador's answer to Django Rhinehart—was born in Beirut.

I'm presenting Arabic food from my land. I'm not going to change that for the tastes of the people.

Today, the country's relatively lax immigration policy continues to make it an attractive destination, not just for Lebanese immigrants. Ecuador is now home to people like Salame Aid from Syria.

Aid is the owner of El Arabe, a restaurant—"not just shawarma," he quickly points out—in the tourist area of La Mariscal.

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It's the kind of restaurant that fills up with men in suits and women with high heels and oversized leather bags. Black and white photos of Syria hang on the walls, and arched windows try to give the impression of an Arabic palace.

For Aid, the decision to move to Quito was prompted by a financial disaster.

"I lost everything I had," he explains, taking a sip of Arabic coffee. "I returned to Syria, I met up with my brother… We were having a drink on the terrace and he asked me, 'What are you going to do?' I say, I'll go to Yugoslavia and open a restaurant. He says, 'Why Yugoslavia and not Ecuador?'

"So I go. And here I am. I've been here 17 years."

Although he had years of experience working in restaurants, Aid arrived without knowing Spanish or anyone in the city. A year and half in, he had bought El Arabe, a restaurant he believes is the most authentic in Latin America.

"I'm presenting Arabic food from my land. I'm not going to change that for the tastes of the people. People have to accept food as it should be," he says. "You don't eat shish kebab with potato and rice."

Luis-Antonio-Gonzalez-Borges_edit

Luis Antonio Gonzalez Borges, a Cuban employee at Shawarma Ali Baba 2.

Aid does not believe all shawarma places are quite so rigorous. He's also critical of the shawarma boom, something he believes can be traced to one specific date: September 11.

"When I bought the restaurant, there were about five shawarma restaurants in all of Quito," he says. "After September 11, airport control became much stricter. The Turkish, Iranians, Lebanese, Pakistanis—they had no way of getting in. They began to think, 'What do I do? There's no way for me to get to the US. I'm going to open a shawarma place.'"

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This theory holds true for Luis Antonio Gonzalez Borges, a Cuban employee at Shawarma Ali Baba 2. He admits, "I came to Ecuador firstly to go to the United States. In the meantime, I will work here."

He's been at Shawarma Ali Baba 2 for three months and has no particular interest in the food. When asked about why it's so popular, he shrugs. "It's cheap. For $3 you get chicken, lettuce and tomato."

You have to find a job to support you. This is a business that can support you because nobody stops eating.

But for many others, Ecuador—not the States—is the final destination.

Osama Heliwa has lived in Ecuador for more than 17 years. Like Aid, he left Syria. Unlike Aid, he had no experience in gastronomy when he arrived.

"I am an electrical engineer. I was working in ships and they offered me one job here, one contract in 1999. So I stayed here," he explains.

"But you know when you're in another place, when you don't know people, the people don't know you, you cannot find your place. So you have to find a job to support you. This is a business that can support you because nobody stops eating."

Now he owns Sham, a brightly coloured Arabic sweet store, with turquoise and gold paintings, decorative hookahs, and rows and rows of baklava. It also sells shawarma.

Heliwa believes the move has been a godsend, particularly given the current situation in in Syria.

"Before, Syria was the best country in the world … But now there is no peace. Just war, just blood," he says.

Heliwa-brothers-from-Syria-in-Arabic-sweet-stre-Sham_edit

The Heliwa brothers, who immigrated to Quito from Syria, at sweet store Sham.

"It is better to be in peaceful country. You earn little bit of money, but you live peacefully."

Three months ago, Heliwa invited his brother Osama to join him. But Osama, also an electrical engineer, found the move more difficult.

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"Can you imagine that my trip from Syria to Quito took 20 days?" he asks.

"They look at my passport and see [a] Syrian guy. 'Where are you going?' 'I am going to Quito … I am electrical engineer. I am not terrorist. I am a normal guy. I want to visit my brother.'"

Osama was ping-ponged between Beirut, Istanbul, Dubai, Lima, and Rio de Janeiro before finally making it to Quito.

While he describes Syria as "beautiful," he says there was no other option but to move to Ecuador.

"It was very hard for me to leave Syria, but I have to leave because I have a family and I have to feed them," he says.

I am electrical engineer. I am not terrorist. I am a normal guy. I want to visit my brother.

Working at Sham, he is able to send back money each month to his wife and three children. He also enjoys the company of Quiteños.

"When I arrive here, I feel very good because Quito is very nice. The people are very friendly and lovely and peaceful people," he says.

"I don't know the language. [Customers] come, and I can try to talk about the sweets, but when they start to talk, I say, 'Please, no hablo Español.' They laugh, they make jokes. They try to help me."

Like the Heliwa brothers, Abdalah Salec Labeid also found refuge in Quito and in a shawarma restaurant.

Labeid fled Western Sahara as a child, moving to Cuba to study. Fourteen years later he arrived in Quito, and today is the manager of Shawarma Riad, one of the oldest shawarma restaurants in the city. But not, he concedes, the most authentic.

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"What we call shawarma is kebab. Here, we call it shawarma," he explains. "The kebab is usually made with lamb, but here the people don't like lamb, and because they eat a lot of chicken, the shawarma is made from chicken."

On the popularity of shawarma, Labeid is unsurprised.

"There're lots of immigrants in Ecuador," he says. "So because there are so many Arabs migrating, the people know what it is. They've seen it in their own countries and they like it."

As he speaks, a potential customer walks by. Labeid jumps into action: "A sus órdenes."

At your service.