This column is on a topic that I can write about with my eyes closed – yet I fear it will land me in trouble.
So let me line up the disclaimers. The opinions in this column are based on my childhood and adult life in Dubai. It excludes a discussion of the equally (if not more) legitimate versions in other cities of the Middle East. It does not aspire to address the issue of authenticity, not only because food evolves in undocumented ways, but because the world has enough wars to fight. It upholds the truth that taste is subjective, even more so with foods that are so cheap, they become universally accessible.
But that said, French fries in a shawarma should simply be banned.
My earliest memory of shawarma was as a six year old sitting crossed-legged on the cold tiles of our new apartment in Deira. It was 1989, the year when my parents decided we would leave behind my friends and familiar hide-and-seek spots in Sharjah for a building that had no other tenants yet except for us. The apartment had the “new smell” of fresh paint and wood varnish, the enticing aromas of a new chapter of our life. As a six-year old, the very thought of breaking our routine and sitting on an uncarpeted floor in an unfurnished apartment in an uninhabited building eating beef shawarmas was like a fantasy replay of The Swiss Family Robinson. The memory still gives me tingles today.
The shawarmas we ate that day were no ordinary shawarmas. They were from one of the best Arabic cafeterias on the north side of the creek: Automatic. Now before half of you ‘shawarma shurthas’ write me a ticket, let me clarify. Times have drastically changed, prices have increased and cheap fries out of a frozen pack have elbowed much of the meat out of our sandwiches. Shawarma quality in the city has come under the speeding wheel of change.
Automatic used to be at the forefront of rolling shawarmas back in the ’80s and early ’90s, especially the little cafeteria on Rigga road. When your teeth sunk through the khubz or pita bread, they would discover soft beef shreds, parsley, tahini, raw red onion curls and sliced tomatoes on the other end. It was simple, fresh, nutty, vegetal, juicy and meaty—the perfect balance under five dirhams. And French fries had no business being in that sandwich.
Residents in Bur Dubai and Satwa will vouch for their own shawarmariyas, with Al Mallah, Al Ijaza and Eat & Drink being at the forefront. But those in Deira were united around the flavours of Automatic’s beef and chicken shawarmas until the cafeteria was broken down along with our hearts a few years ago. A road down from Automatic, Aroos Damascus on Murraqqabat has thankfully stayed put. This classic old-timer haunt with a 6 dirham spot-on beef shawarma is still a ‘sandwish’ come true.
Opinions are divided over Al Mallah and I’m too much of a coward to publicly admit where I stand. Moreover, I have not tasted the trajectory of their shawarma since the beginning of time (i.e. 1985). Shawarma was something my family ate in our own neighbourhood. Travelling all the way from Deira to Satwa just for a shawarma, especially with some of the best shawarmariyas in our neighbourhood, was simply ludicrous. The first time I tasted an Al Mallah shawarma was only five years ago when I finally reconciled with the idea that I was not betraying Deira’s shawarmariyas by crossing the creek for a quick fix.
Not only has my geographic shawarma span widened over the past few years, I have also switched my shawarma intake from meat to chicken—and not all shawarmariyas get both right. ‘Toom’ or the garlic aioli that glues together the marinated chicken shreds with the vegetables and bread is one of the critical influencers of taste. The marinade is equally important, with some that can transform the chicken into semi-charred, moist tendrils of well-seasoned flavour and others that fail to mask its ‘chickeny’ aftertaste. Two chicken shawarma stalwarts – Hatam Al Tai and Shiraz Nights – fight it out next to each other on Baniyas Road by the creek. Each of these two shawarmariyas boasts queues after sunset for their regular and spicy chicken shawarmas. Both places stamp their rolls with a heavy iron press over well-oiled griddles, sealing in the chicken juices and garlic paste into a crisp Iranian lavash pocket. Given how seriously I take my shawarma studies, it is only natural that I have led groups of people to perform blind taste comparisons between the two rivals. 97% of tasters across my various groups have preferred the same shawarmariya, a winner I will not reveal because you owe it to yourself to do the comparison and take no one else’s word for it.
Beyond the sinister fries that sneak into sandwiches these days, one of my three quibbles around present-day shawarma in the city is how lean they have become. Of course shawarmas would seem larger in my 6-year old palms than they do today—but even my parents whose palms have remained unchanged since the 80s speak of this disturbing change. A second worrying issue, which makes me feel rather vulnerable when giving recommendations, is that shawarmariyas keep fluctuating in quality. Just because a place was good last year, does not mean it will be good this year. The most committed shawarma soldiers amongst us will persevere in not taking sides but rather applying our energies towards sampling and re-sampling as many meaty data points as we can.
And finally, it is surprising that we as a city have not coined a word to distinguish the places that slice and roll this most ubiquitous, beloved food. Mexico has its taqueria and Italy has its pizzeria, but we haven’t really named the places that serve what is possibly the only ‘true’ street food our city has. Which brings me to my real motive for writing this column – not to tell you where to find Dubai’s best shawarma, but simply to coin a word that should have entered our food lingo decades ago: The ‘shawarmariya.’