A very common and tasty sandwich in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region is Schwarma. Schwarma is widely made fresh and sold throughout the Kingdom. It is such a tasty, healthy and reasonably priced sandwich and among my favorites. If you have not tried Schwarma before, it is a Middle Eastern sandwich-like wrap of shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a halal mixture of meats. The meat is placed on a spit, and may be grilled for as long as a day. Chunks of fat within the meat ensure that the shawarma stays juicy. Shawarma is eaten with pita bread, tabouli, fattoush, taboon bread, tomato and cucumber. Toppings include tahini, hummus, pickled turnips and amba. In outward appearance, it resembles the gyros of Greece or the Turkish döner kebab in the sense that all use pita-wrapped meat, but the sauces are distinctly different.
Shawarma is made by placing strips of meat or marinated chicken on a stick; an onion or tomato is placed at the top of the stack for flavoring. The meat is roasted slowly on all sides as the spit rotates in front of, or over, a flame for hours (see rotisserie). Traditionally a wood fire was used, now a gas flame is common. While specialty restaurants might offer two or more meat selections, some establishments have just one skewer.
After cooking, the meat is shaved off the stack with a large knife, an electric knife or a small circular saw, dropping to a circular tray below to be retrieved. Shawarma is eaten as a fast food, made up into a sandwich wrap with pita bread or rolled up in lafa (a sweet, fluffy flatbread) together with vegetables and a dressing. Vegetables found in shawarma include cucumber, onion, tomato, lettuce, eggplant, parsley, pickled turnips, pickled gherkins, cabbage, and in some countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Jordan, Israel, or the United Arab Emirates, french fries.
Dressings include tahini (or tahina), Amba sauce (pickled mango with Chilbeh) and hummus, flavored with vinegar and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Chicken shawarma is served with garlic mayonnaise, toum (garlic sauce), pomegranate concentrate, or skhug (a hot chili sauce). Once the shawarma is made, it might be dipped in the fat dripping from the skewer and then briefly seared against the flame. In Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, chicken shawarma are toasted after being made up, whereas those made of lamb or beef are immediately eaten.
Beef can be used for shawarma instead of lamb, and turkey is used instead of chicken. In Saudi Arabia, goat is as common as beef or lamb. Less common alternatives include fish and sausage. Some shawarma stores use hot dog buns or baguettes, but most have pita and lafa. Sometimes, beef shawarma—despite its name—contains some lamb in addition to the beef, to ensure juiciness.
I usually get my Schwarma from one of the many many places which sell Schwarma in Riyadh rather than make my own. The Schwarma at Mama Nourah’s, Al Bossarie or Al Adajame are excellent. In fact, I’m not aware of many Saudis who do choose to make their own when it is so readily available. But if you wish to try your hand at making this popular sandwich, here is a recipe which I found on allrecipes.com which sounds pretty tasty and authentic based on the ingredients used:
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon finely minced onion
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, thinly sliced
- 8 (6-inch) pita breads, warmed
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt (optional)
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 1 cucumber, thinly sliced
- 1 cup Ranch dressing
- To make the marinade, stir together 1 cup yogurt, lemon juice, hot pepper sauce, and vinegar. Stir in the garlic, onion, pepper, red pepper flakes, mace, and salt. Marinate the chicken overnight in the refrigerator.
- Place oven rack in the top position, and turn oven on to Broil.
- To cook, drain the marinade from the meat, and place on a slotted broiler pan. Broil on top rack of preheated oven, turning after a few minutes, until cooked through, about 5 minutes.
- To assemble the schwarma, spread each pita with a tablespoon of plain yogurt, and layer with onion, tomato, and cucumber. Pile on the broiled chicken, and dress with Ranch dressing.
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