Shawarma (or shoarma as it is called in the Netherlands) is Middle-Eastern way of preparing meat with spices on a vertical spit, which is subsequently served in pita bread with salad and garlic sauce. It is a fast food staple around the world, and not something you’d expect to read about on a foodie blog such as this. Most places that sell shoarma in the Netherlands have their peak hours in the middle of the night on weekends, when people get hungry after having drunk a lot of beer. If you were the owner of a shawarma place and you were serving your fare mostly to customers who are too drunk to care, would you care about the quality of what you are serving? I’ve had such a shawarma sandwich (broodje shoarma) on a few occasions, but never cared much for the soggy, greasy, overspiced and overgarlicked concoction with a taste that lingered way too long. Not surprisingly however, it turns out that if you make a shawarma sandwich from scratch, it is actually outstandingly delicious! And when I say from scratch, I really mean from scratch, including baking your own pita bread.
I prepared this batch of shawarma in preparation for a 10-day boat trip with a group of 30 or so this summer. Together with a friend I will be charged with cooking all the meals during that trip, and shawarma is planned to be one of them as it is so popular. Since I had never made it before and had hardly ever eaten it, I had an experienced testing panel that also provided expert advice. One member of said panel even prepared the garlic sauce, which needed to be prepared a day in advance to allow the flavors to develop. We tried store-bought pita bread to see whether it would be worth baking our own. The verdict was clear: homemade pita bread was vastly superior. It has more flavor and better texture: crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
Shawarma is originally made using lamb, but it is also made with chicken or even pork. The latter is certainly not authentic, given the Middle-Eastern origin of the dish. However because of the spices you probably won’t taste the difference anyway, so pork can be a cheap but acceptable substitute. I used a mixture of lamb shoulder, lamb neck, and leg of lamb. It is important to use meat with some fat, because fat meat has more flavor. Even though the word shawarma has been derived from the Turkish word for “turning”, you do not have to own a vertical spit to prepare it. As the meat is sliced thinly, it can be stir fried just as easily.
If you’ve never had pita bread with shawarma made from scratch from fresh ingredients, I urge you to give it a try. It will be very different from what you have likely had in a fast food place.
For 6 sandwiches (enough to feed 2 – 3 people)
450 grams (1 lb) lamb (neck, shoulder, leg) cut into strips
1 bell pepper, diced
100 grams (1/2 cup) chopped onion
1/2 chile pepper, seeded and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
100 grams (1/2 cup) diced tomato
75 grams (1/3 cup) diced cucumber
75 grams (1 cup) shredded iceberg lettuce
optional: chile paste such as sambal ulek or chili sauce
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
For the garlic sauce
125 ml (1/2 cup) Greek/Turkish yogurt
125 ml (1/2 cup) mayonnaise
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed or grated
1 tsp chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
1/2 tsp sugar
300 grams (2 cups minus 2 Tbsp) all-purpose flour
180 ml (3/4 cup) lukewarm water
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
15 grams (1/2 oz) fresh yeast (2 tsp dry yeast)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Preparation of the garlic sauce
Preparation of the pita bread
Combine about half of the lukewarm water with the yeast and the sugar and stir to dissolve. Allow to stand until frothy.
Preparation of the shawarma
With this gourmet version I thought it would be appropriate to offer a wine pairing suggestion. Although shawarma is usually served with beer (or after beer…), lamb shawarma is also outstanding with a nice glass of pinot noir. The wine should not have strong tannins because of the spiciness of the meat and should be chilled just slightly (to 16C/60F). With white meat such as pork or chicken, a fruity grüner veltliner or sauvignon blanc would be nice.