If someone offered you a sandwich of greasy, layered meat that had been slowly spinning and cooking for hours adjacent a low flame, you might think twice. But if someone offered you some shawarma, you likely would not have to think at all.
For crazed carnivores longing for some meaty madness, sapid shawarma is an irresistible and surefire path to pita paradise. But while many Jews living in and outside of Israel enjoy eating shawarma, is there anything about shawarma that makes it uniquely Jewish?
The term, “shawarma,” is not Hebrew or Yiddish. It is an Arabic word that loosely means “turning” or “turn” and refers to the turning rotisserie apparatus on which a shawarma traditionally sits and spins. But just because shawarma means “turning” or “turn” does not mean you should use it to describe other things that turn. For example, you should not refer to a legendary daytime soap opera by the title, “As the World Shawarmas.” When you are giving directions, you should not tell someone to make a left-hand shawarma. But when it comes to forgiveness, you should shawarma the other cheek.
A few experts argue that shawarma is a distant relative of tacos al pastor, a Spanish dish of spit-grilled meat. The Spanish term “tacos al pastor” actually means “tacos shepherd style.” Since Moses was a shepherd, the name “tacos al pastor” sort of has a Jewish connection. Perhaps when the Jews were in the desert for 40 years, they ate “tacos al vagabundos” (tacos wanderer style).
The interesting thing about a shawarma “sandwich,” i.e., shawarma in a pita or laffa, is that no two shawarma sandwiches are exactly the same. They usually are prepared and assembled on the spot to each customer’s specifications. Some want pickles, yet others don’t. Some want techina while others prefer hummus. Some crave hot sauce but others can’t take the heat. Many other potential toppings can find their way into a shawarma sandwich including Israeli salad, french fries, cabbage (red and white), baba-ganoush and several pickled items like pickled carrots, cauliflower, beets and turnips. In fact, you can put just about anything in a shawarma sandwich but the most popular topping by far is more shawarma.
Another key factor that distinguishes one shawarma sandwich from the other is the meat itself. Shawarma is typically placed on a rotisserie spit by hand, bit by bit. The shaping of the shawarma is both science and art, and it is the human imperfection inherent in every shawarma assembly that gives each final product its own unique layering. Believe it or not, this has a direct effect on its taste because the flavorful fatty portions of the meat wind up distributed differently and unevenly each and every time.
Since the fatty portions are those that ooze and drip along the sides of the shawarma as it rotates, the slapdash, hodgepodge placement creates scrumptious uneven layers of intentional randomness. This is doubly true if the rotisserie flame is uneven too, creating fortuitously arbitrary areas of crispy crunchy texture. Thus, no two shawarma sandwiches are exactly the same, just like no two falafel sandwiches are exactly the same. Even identical twins are not exactly the same. For one thing, they have different names.
Shawarma is traditionally made using lamb but other versions, including chicken, turkey and veal shawarma, have become in vogue. That said, not everything in life should be made into shawarma. That is just one reason you will be hard-pressed to find tuna fish shawarma.
Final thought: It is fine to spin a shawarma but not a tale.
Yonatan Levi writes humor columns for the Cleveland Jewish News.