In Saudi Arabia? Try Some Schwarma!

schwarma 1

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.

The word shawarma (pronounced /ˈʃwɑrmə/) comes from the Turkish word çevirme [tʃevirˈme], meaning turning, and has its origins in Anatolia

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.

schwarma 2 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 which sounds pretty tasty and authentic based on the ingredients used:


  • Marinade
  • 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
  • Condiments
  • 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


  1. 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.
  2. Place oven rack in the top position, and turn oven on to Broil.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

27 Responses

  1. Some municipals ban shawrma in the summer time. This happened this year in Al Ahsa because no less than 40 people got poisoned this summer by a restaurant here. After the investigation, the municipal concluded that in the post preparation and storage the Shawrma will likely cause such future poisoning in the summer periods… the ban continued until September as it was scheduled to be removed then.. it sounded like the ban will be applied also in future summer seasons.

    While Shawrma is tasty.. I personally have reservations about the shawrma in open air for long periods of time… especially chicken shawrma.

    And for the Shawrma recommendations in the Eastern Region.. I would say Al Wazzan Restraunt in Khobar.. I am not sure if they have a family section but its a pretty popular Lebanese restaurant and very popular for its Shawrma and they do have many other delicious food too offer… in my own experience I love the lamb Shawrma here.. the meat is so tender it melts in your mouth. I am really drolling here… since I prefer beef Shawrma and mostly disappointed by a lot of restaurants who only put chicken and garlic paste in their sandwich and called it a Shawrma…if it doesn’t have Salad and tuhaini I wouldn’t call it a shawrma.

  2. I remember living in Bahrain and NOT liking the Shawrama at all-ever! When I was in Turkey-the similar type sandwich was AMAZING! I don’t know what ti was about the ones in Bahrain…..maybe I ate too many.


  3. I prefer the chicken schwarma while my husband likes the lamb. One of my favorites are the pickles in the schwarma and the mix of tahina and other spices and sauce. Now I’m making myself hungry…

  4. One of my favorite places used to put mint leaves along with the usual toppings. It was absolutely amazing. I returned to the place after a long absence, and I was sad to see that they had changed the staff and they no longer put the wonderful mint in the shawerma.

  5. Saudi Jawa,

    That does sound good and I’m sure gives schwarma a unique flavor. I will certainly try that when I have an opportunity! Thank you for sharing.

  6. There are several places I’ve found here in Northern VA that have Schwarma but oddly enough my favorite place is in the food court of Potomac Mills Mall just south of DC. However, since I generally try to avoid malls, thanks for the recipe. We’re going to have a progressive dinner in my neighborhood in December, I guess I’ve got my contribution!! YUM!

  7. I like them made with the pickeled turnips and french fry/potato inside. Here in the Metro DC area the best is at An-Nakheel in Vienna.

  8. American Bedu, Sharwma is one of my favorites. Thanks for the recipe.
    The best chicken Sharwma I ever had was in a little hide away place in Sharjah, UAE. This Sharwma in particular had a lemony tang to it, it was so good. Oh, and it was only 4Drhms. ( 4 / 3.65) Quite a bargen, eeh.
    Thanks for the topic…making my mouth water.

  9. Al Nakheel in Vienna along 123/Maple Avenue is indeed the best place for Middle Eastern cuisine. The Saudi embassy uses Al Nakheel often for various events and we had them cater a few of ours when we were in the WDC area.

  10. @Carol,

    Yes, it was Prince Bandr’s butcher/grocery for a long time. My Father in Law shopped with them for some 20 years. We still go there and are friendly with the family who owns the place.

    Having moved often my entire life it is nice to stick around long enough for people to get to know you.

    Their baklava is top notch and my wife loves their kunafa.

  11. Yay, a recipe!

    Still haven’t made it to Al-Nakheel, alas. Perhaps when the kids come home for the holidays …. And I’ll have to check out the food court at Potomac Mills — thanks!

    How can you say that fries are included “in some countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Jordan, Israel, or the United Arab Emirates” and not in Saudi? Every shwarma I ever had in Riyadh in our almost six years of living there had fries — whether from carts on a Western compound or from shwarma stands near the souks. Or is that just a peculiarity of the capital?

  12. All hail the shawarma sandwich!!! Its a life saver when you are hungry!!

  13. Jordan, Israel, or the United Arab Emirates” and not in Saudi? Every shwarma I ever had in Riyadh in our almost six years of living there had fries — whether from carts on a Western compound or from shwarma stands near the souks. Or is that just a peculiarity of the capital?

    Never got fries with mine in Bahrain and I lived there for a year. Then again, I was not keen on those things after 6 months or so.

  14. This post had me sending the hubster to pick me up a shwarma sandwich from The Sheikh! No fries were included or desired. YUM! I hadn’t had one in a while and it was de-lish!

  15. @Umm Tom,

    Maybe it is just different vendors? My wife lived in Jeddah and said she always had fries in hers. As a matter of fact, she said the ones at an-Nakheel are the closest she’s found in the states to real Saudi shawarma and they have fries and those lovely pink pickled turnips.

  16. I cant even stand the smell of shawarmas much less eat them…..*gag*

  17. @coolred – I think you may be in the minority on this one!

  18. Did anyone mention that in Saudi shawarmas are to police what donuts are to police here in the states?

  19. Ha, love the doughnut comparison.

    I definitely have to get to Al-Nakheel when the kids are home for Thanksgiving.

  20. And to answer your question, @Abu Sinan, I was trying to get across in my post that every shawarma I had in Riyadh had fries in it, so I assumed fries were part of the Saudi way of making shawarmas — yet the text of the blog item left Saudi out as a country that routinely put the fries in!

  21. I agree Umm Tom, I thought the “french fry” thing was a Saudi style as well. You mentiom Riyadh and my wife is from the Hijaz on the other end of the country and that is how they do it there too.

  22. When my husband lived in Jerusalem he said that schwarma with french fries in it was his favorite, it was very popular over there. Now the question is, who started putting fries in their schwarma first? The Palestinians or the Saudis?


  23. […] tv which is always on.  My friend and I paid little attention though to the tv.  We devoured the scharmwa which we had both ordered.  The flavor and taste of the schwarma made me feel like I was at […]

  24. my favorite is the one with a mustardy style sauce with lamb or chicken on a long bread roll, i guess you can call it a saudi shawarma.

  25. Aren’t the french fries only in the chicken ones? I usually like chicken shawarma- but not lamb. I don’t like meat when it is spiced with cinnimon. I love Greek gyros- which is basically the same things different spices.

  26. I don’t remember a “mustardy” sauce at the schwarma places we’d go to in Riyadh but that does sound good also. If I recall correctly all the schwarma’s we’d have included french fries inside. It could be the areas and place which make so many schwarmas unique.

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