“Magic” is how Zeeshan Shaikh, a 43-year-old shawarma seller who runs a roadside stall in Mumbai, described the dish to me.
If you’ve ever tried thin cuts of lamb or any other meat cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie, then rolled inside a lightly roasted pita bread, and finished off with a sauce or two, chances are that you have tried it again. And again.
This is the humble shawarma.
The popular street snack originated in the Ottoman Empire around the 18th century, with its name coming from the Turkish word “çevirme” which means “to turn.” “It already has several international adaptations such as the German doner kebab or the Greek gyros, both of which are rotating spits on which meat is cooked, stuffed in a bread, rolled with salads and dressings,” explained Sonal Ved, the Mumbai-based author of Tiffin, a compilation of 500 Indian recipes and Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? that simplifies the history of Indian food.
In the contemporary version, a huge chunk of meat faces the grill on one side, slowly turning on a fixed axis to expose other parts of the meat, while thin slices of cooked meat are cut off with a sharp knife. In most parts of the world, the shawarma is usually sold in makeshift stalls and food trucks as a quick, on-the-go snack – a major factor in its widespread appeal.
Such is its global popularity that even the Marvel superhero franchise has given in to its charms. In the post-credits scene from the 2012 megahit Avengers, one of the highest grossing films of all time, all the six central characters – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow – can be seen quietly chomping on shawarmas after saving the world, as restaurant workers in the background seem to be hard at work cleaning the post-apocalyptic debris.
Interestingly, it was Robert Downey Jr. who insisted the scene be shot and added just days before the movie opened, and Marvel agreed that it would “humanise” the Avengers. Soon after the movie's release, shawarma sales skyrocketed across the United States, with one restaurant reporting an 80 percent spike in shawarma sales. It also found a place on the menu of the Avengers Campus at Disneyland, which opened last year.
What explains the shawarma’s global popularity? Is it something to do with the optics of it – that delicious visual of watching a chunky piece of meat getting slowly pit roasted in front of a grill and then sliced and slathered onto unsuspecting pita bread? Or is it the fact that it’s a filling on-the-go dish that can work as a meal or a snack equally well?
“Apart from the comfort of using bread that helped shawarma gain widespread acceptance, it all comes down to the visual appeal of it: the smoke coming out, the aroma, the way it’s cooked right in front of you,” explained Gautam Mehrishi, a head chef at a luxury hotel in Mumbai. “It’s also similar to how people love the cracking sound of [Mumbai street staple] paani puri before it’s dunked in tamarind water.”
If we had to give thanks to one person for this delicious dish, Mehrishi said it’d have to be Iskender Efendi who rolled the world’s first shawarma in Turkey in the late 1800s. He added that the effect of shawarma on global culinary history is such that even Mexico took a leaf out of the wrapping style of shawarma when it first conceptualised tacos.
In India, where I live, the shawarma and its many iterations have grown to be a popular snack – even among vegetarians.
“Kebabs usually came from people who were either travelling or were warriors,” Mehrishi said. “Kebabs were easy to cook as all you needed was some fire and salt. But Indian chefs added their own character to it – lettuce, tomatoes, yoghurt, and cilantro. So, these marriages between different techniques made it all the more appealing to Indians.”
But the humble dish found itself in a soup recently. Ma Subramanian – the health minister of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu – recently presented a theory about why one should not consume the beloved dish in India. “Shawarma is Western food,” he said. The minister’s statement came in the wake of three students of a veterinary college being admitted to hospital for a severe case of food poisoning after having shawarma. Earlier this month, a Shigella outbreak at a shawarma joint in south India also led to 58 people falling severely sick, with one teen dying of food poisoning.
Subramanian insisted that shawarma sellers must have facilities to freeze their ingredients, otherwise they are prone to go bad in India’s tropical air. This is why he said shawarma is an inherently Western dish.
Instead of going after the poor conditions in which street foods are often prepared, Subramanian politicised the debate into an “us vs them” issue. And he went straight for the food beloved to millions: the shawarma.“We are requesting people not to go after food like shawarma and other items with fancy names. We already have many good food items in our country,” he further added, in what seemed like a weird PR for “Indian” dishes.
So, what explains the shawarma’s Indian connection? Ved, the food writer, said that this can be understood by going back to the 1960s.
“Before the shawarma, Indians were introduced to something called a ‘frankie’ that originated in Mumbai,” she said. “It was created by hockey player Amarjit Singh Tibb in 1969, following a trip to Beirut in 1967, and was named after West Indies cricketer Frank Worrell. From there, the frankie went through many versions over the years and has now reached close to how it is eaten in the Middle East. However, nothing stops us from adding Indian-ish things to it like paneer (cottage cheese), tandoori mushroom, corn, and Amul cheese.”
She added that the difference between the Indian shawarma and its authentic predecessor is that often, the Indian one is roti, wrap or tortilla-based, while the latter is pita bread-based. “The cooking technique is the same with the rotating grill. The spices are similar too, but there are some that the authentic shawarma uses like tahini and sumac, which are not readily available in India.”
The meat of the shawarma can range from chicken, lamb and beef to even goat and turkey. For the Indian palate, chefs have moulded the dish to also include the closest vegetarian equivalent to meat: paneer or cottage cheese.
The shawarma is being interpreted in different ways around the world too. Iskender Efendi might be turning in his grave at the more environmentally conscious 2022 update to his beloved dish: the vegan shawarma. In Taim, a Mediterranean restaurant in New York and Washington DC, cauliflower shawarma with pickled onions and a sweet-and-sour Amba sauce (made from ripe mangoes and spices) is a menu favourite.
But what about the Indian health minister’s contention that the shawarma sellers need freezing capabilities?
Shripad Bodas, a gastroenterologist, told VICE that there is nothing about the shawarma that makes it a unique candidate for food poisoning. “We find large cases of food poisoning in dishes that have sugar or are dairy-based because the bacteria need sugar to multiply. If the meat has gone bad, food poisoning can occur with any dish. Ultimately, it all comes down to maintaining good hygiene.”
Shaikh, my go-to shawarma seller, added that there is a fundamental mistake with the assumption that we badly need freezing. “We don’t need freezing mostly because we mount fresh meat on the grill in the morning, and by night, it’s all over.”
With that, he added some extra slices of lamb to my shawarma for the first time. I wasn’t complaining.