The “Madonna” of Wraps: Chicken Shawarma
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
My most epic sandwich moment happened near Petra in Jordan, back in the 1990s. I was determined to hike around this ancient city with my tour group in 100-degree heat. One of my friends on this trip, John, was perpetually hungry, regardless of the blistering hot weather. He saw a lonely shawarma stand off the side of the road, and made our taxi stop so he could buy a few wraps.
Seeing that the stand sold 3 shawarma wraps for about 1 dinar (under 2 American dollars) I decided to buy 3 wraps as well to fuel my impending hike. The wraps were on the small side, about the circumference of a Mexican flauta. Nestled inside the soft flatbread were some spiced tender lamb, crispy cucumber yogurt salad, pickled onions, and a nutty creamy tahini sauce. I didn’t realize I was hungry until I took my first bite, and then I just couldn’t stop myself, devouring all three wraps in one swoop. Hence, my obsession with shawarma began.
Even now whenever I see a shawarma stand my mind gets flooded with blissful memories of that day in Petra. Fast forward to today, and this sandwich has reached cult status in nearly every Middle Eastern country and beyond. Shawarma is timeless, globally popular, and vogue, sort of like the Madonna of wraps. I knew I had to recreate shawarma at home so I could have it anytime I wanted–with ingredients, I could feel good about.
The word shawarma comes from the Arabic word “shawi” which means to grill. Usually, lamb, chicken, or beef are placed on a vertical spit roaster and can be slow cooked for as long as a day. Hard working guys shave the meat off the block, and the remainder of the meat is kept heated on the rotating pit.
The plus of making shawarma yourself is you can customize how you serve the meat to your specific dietary needs. For instance, you can serve the meat on a salad for a low carb option, on a plate with rice and salad for heartier fare, or in a wrap as a fast food or picnic lunch. You can even sub out the meat altogether if you’re a vegetarian, using the same marinade for tempeh, seitan, or even portabella mushrooms.
You can get really creative with the wraps. Feel free to use any kind of flatbread–like pita, tortilla (flour, sprouted or low carb), Armenian lavash, or Persian Sangak bread. For roasting the chicken, I realize most people don’t have a vertical spit roaster, so you can either roast the meat in the oven–or just grill the chicken outdoors for an extra smoky flavor.
The tahini sauce for the shawarma is called “tarator” sauce, which has no relation to American tartar sauce. Instead, you have a tahini-based sauce spiked with lemon and garlic.
If you’re doing some summer entertaining, trying making a shawarma bar. Guests can assemble the meats, wraps, condiments, and sauce as they wish to make a customized wrap. You can marinate the meat, marinate the onions, and make the tahini sauce the day before. All you have to do the day of your party is grill the meats and assemble the cucumber tomato salad. How easy is that?
For a tutorial on how to make this cookie, click on the video below:
Chicken Shawarma: (Serves 4)
1 lb Boneless chicken thighs or lamb
For the Marinade:
¼ tsp Coriander
1 ½ tsp Allspice
¼ tsp Cumin
1 tsp Sumac
Salt and Pepper to taste
⅓ Cup Olive Oil
4 cloves garlic finely minced
Tarator (Tahini) Sauce
¼ cup tahini sauce
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
Salt to taste
Tomato Cucumber Salad
1 large tomato, diced
1-2 Persian cucumbers, diced
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
½ small red onion thinly sliced
1 tbsp red or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sumac
salt to taste
Whisk together the coriander, cumin, sumac, allspice, garlic, and oil. Combine marinade with the meat, and marinate for a minimum of one hour up to overnight. Meanwhile, combine red onions, vinegar, sumac and salt, refrigerate until ready to assemble the wraps. Next combine all of the ingredients for the tarator sauce (tahini, salt, garlic, lemon and olive oil) in a food processor and whirl until creamy. Place in a jar and refrigerate until the wraps are ready to assemble. Once you are ready to cook the meat, add salt and pepper to to the meat right before cooking. You can grill your meat outdoors, or if planning to roast the meat in the oven, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the meat on a baking sheet, and bake for 30 minutes until nice and browned. Let the meat rest for about 15 minutes before slicing for your shawarma. Now you can put together your salad. Combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, olive oil and salt and set aside. To assemble the shawarma wraps, place some sliced meat on the flatbread first. Add the vinegar onions, cucumber tomato salad, then drizzle with tahini sauce.
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, food writer, and host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/