It looks exactly like the real deal. Like a golden, rotating, elephant leg-shaped lamb shawarma. Stacks of thin, meaty layers bound together in beautiful greasy goodness by the caramelized juices. But it’s not 2 AM and you’re not in the remorseful act of late-night kebab relief. You’re at Noma, one of the world’s most influential fine-dining restaurants, tucking into a slice of deceptively shawarma-like celeriac.
“The shawarma was one of the first things we had in mind when we started brainstorming for our new menu,” says 28-year-old Mette Brink Søberg, who works as head of research and development at Noma. “We needed a main course with a certain energy. Something truly special.”
The celeriac shawarma is served three-quarters of the way through Noma’s new vegetarian menu for its summer season, which pays tribute to the plant kingdom (and a few tasty grasshoppers in a walnut mole, served with grilled wild roses and pumpkin seed curd). The menu includes butterfly-shaped fruit leather crafted from sea buckthorn and blackcurrant, vegetarian “chorizo” made from rosehip berries, and a sandwich of crispy milk skins layered with smoked parsley and topped with preserved black truffles. And then the illusion of a perfect kebab shop trophy tower, which hides an intricate process that started to take shape more than a year ago.
“We already started working on it when we were doing our pop-up in Mexico in 2017,” explains Søberg. “We had this amazing custom-built barbecue which we fed with coals through a drawer. Mexico has al pastor, which is very similar to shawarma, so we thought about doing a vegetarian pastor on the barbecue for our main course.”
The al pastor never materialized in Mexico, but once Noma moved into its new building on the outskirts of Christiania, the idea resurfaced. The chefs started experimenting by building a shawarma stack from various greens. From onions and carrots. From cabbage, parsnips and even potatoes. “We tried everything under the sun,” explains Søberg. “We worked on it for a long time, to the point where we got a bit fed up. It tasted good, but it didn’t have that wow feeling.”
That was until they cracked the code with celeriac. To make the shawarma, they slice celeriac into hundreds of wafer-thin layers which are then built around a black currant branch that has been trimmed to act as a spear. The layers are each smeared with various purées: There is celeriac pureé with truffle juice, summer truffle purée, and a cream made from linseed, porcini mushrooms, and celery reduction. Once they have the components at hand, it takes Søberg and the team about two hours to build a shawarma tower, which is grilled on a barbecue built from bricks, metal grids and an old yakitori. On top of the shawarma are apples spiked into the celeriac with pine twigs.
“When you have pastor in Mexico, there is always a piece of pineapple at the top where the juices run down from. You get a little hit of sweet and sour, and it worked really well when we tried it with apple. Just like a real shawarma with meat, you can see all the layers when you slice through it, because they stick together during cooking.”
The R&D team at Noma were toying with the idea of carving the shawarma at the table. Maybe even serving it with flatbread. A small jar of chili sauce on the side, even. The trick, explains Søberg, was to take something familiar but not turn it into something pedestrian.
“It’s about that balance where we keep it from becoming too much like street food. If we had stuffed it in a flatbread and served chili sauce on the side, then it would have been delicious, no doubt, but it would have looked like something that belonged in a market stall. We had to come up with something that was fitting as a main course at Noma.“
Instead, the chefs carve a slice from the shawarma spit, which they slowly roast while basting it with various glazes. It’s presented on the plate with a piece of the shawarma-apple, white currants marinated in elderflower oil, and beach herbs and leaves dressed in a koji emulsion. Finally, a sauce made from seaweed, mushrooms, truffles, and brown butter.
As an act of indulgent generosity when you have finished your shawarma, the chefs return to replenish the plate with sauce and chunks of fresh, crunchy sourdough on the side to mop it all up. "It would almost be rude not to give people a piece of bread,” says Søberg, “because it just fits perfectly at that very moment.”
It’s shawarma, alright, but not as your hangover knows it. And not quite like any dish Noma has served before. Søberg has been part of the test kitchen since early 2016. Being tasked with creating an all-vegetarian menu was among her toughest—and most rewarding—assignments yet, she says.
“Obviously we have made lots of vegetarian dishes at Noma before, but there was always a main course with some piece of fish or game. There was always that element of protein. When you have something like king crab or mahogany clams on the menu, then you know that people will have a sense of satisfaction and familiarity, but it’s a different game when you are left with carrots and celeriac.”
That is, unless you skewer it on a stick and let it spin around the fire like the lamb shawarma at your local kebab shop. Then even the most meat-fetishizing carnivores should go weak at the knees.