The best shawarma I have ever had was at Siddiq in Damascus. Unlike most other shawarma places, they grill theirs over charcoal. Also their marinade is exceptional. Sadly, it’s unlikely I will be going back to Damascus any time soon. And even when I do, who knows if Siddiq will still be there. So, if I feel like having shawarma these days I make my own. Obviously not the way they make it at Siddiq or even elsewhere – ie. by layering the meat onto a large skewer which is then put to rotate in front of a vertical grill – but the way my Lebanese butcher in London taught me: by slicing the meat into long thin slivers and marinating it before sauteing it quickly over a medium-high heat. He slices the meat very thinly but I prefer thicker strips so that it stays pink.
He adds onions to his marinade but I am still debating whether I like them with the meat or not.
The classic shawarma marinade is more complex than the one I give here but I am happy with my simpler version, made with my very own 7-spice mix which I initially thought was heavy on the nutmeg but in fact it is not.
Once you toss the meat with the marinade, you let it sit for at least two hours.
While the meat is marinating, you can prepare the garnish ingredients for the sandwich: tahini sauce, tomatoes, mint and turnip pickles.
The interesting thing about tahini is that it thickens when you stir the lemon juice into it and you would think that it would dilute as liquid is added to it but don’t let this worry you. All will be fine in the end. I have been meaning to ask Harold McGee to explain why this happens but I haven’t yet.
And here, you see it starting to dilute again as I added water.
The garnish ingredients for the sandwich beautifully prepared by my gorgeous friend Amy. Unfortunately my turnip pickles lost all their colour because the jar was in my kitchen where there is a lot of light – I had never seen this happen before. They still tasted fine though.
Now you are ready to saute the meat. I do this in a non-stick pan with no added oil over a medium-high heat and really for a couple of minutes to soften the onions and sear the meat leaving it pink inside.
Amy heating the bread. We used Turkish.
The ingredients beautifully arranged down the middle (again by Amy): meat first then the garnishes then the tahini.
Amy’s beautiful hands wrapping the bread around the meat and garnishes. The sandwich is not particularly pretty once it’s fully wrapped and we could have done something to make it photogenic but it would have cooled and not been as nice to eat. As we are both fines bouches, we wanted to enjoy it at its optimum! And here below is what Siddiq’s Shawarma looks like as it is grilling against the charcoal grill. It will be my first stop when I return to Damascus, that and Ramadan’s qatayef and Dimashq’s ice cream and so many other delicious things!
Lamb Shawarma (Shawarma Lahmeh)
800 g lamb from the shoulder, thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice or 7-spice mixture
freshly ground black pepper
2-3 round pita breads about 8-inch diameter or 4-6 oval ones
4-6 small tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 medium-sized red onion, very thinly sliced
4-6 gherkins or 1 pickled turnip, thinly sliced lengthways
handful mint leaves
Put the meat in a large mixing bowl, add the onion, lemon juice, olive oil, spices, salt and pepper and mix well. Let marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours.
Place a large sauté pan over a medium-high heat. When it is very hot add the meat and sauté for a couple of minutes or until done to your liking.
Depending on how much meat you like in your sandwich, the amount given in this recipe will make up to 6 sandwiches. If you are using round pita breads, tear them open at the seams to have four to six separate circles. Arrange equal quantities of meat down the middle of each bread. Garnish with equal quantities of tomato, onion, pickles and herbs and drizzle on as much tahini sauce as you like. Roll each sandwich quite tight. Wrap the bottom half of the sandwiches with a paper napkin and serve immediately. If you are using oval pita bread, open at the seam to create a large pocket. Spread the bottom half with the tahini sauce and fill each bread with equal amounts of sandwich ingredients. Serve immediately.
Tahini sauce (Tarator)
In Egypt, this sauce (or dip depending on how thick you make it) is called tahina and it is always served in café/restaurants as part of the initial spread for the breaking of the fast of Ramadan. In Lebanon it is served plain with fried fish or mixed with chopped parsley or cilantro to use in falafel sandwiches. Serves 4
1/2 cup tahini
juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
1/3 cup water
Put the tahini in a mixing bowl and whisk in the lemon juice and water, gradually and alternately — this is to make sure that you get the right balance of taste while keeping the consistency as it should be, like creamy yogurt. The tahini will first thicken to a purée-like consistency before starting to dilute again. If you decide to use less lemon juice, make up for the loss of liquid by adding a little more water or vice versa. Add salt to taste. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
©Anissa Helou — Both recipes from Mediterranean Street Food