Friday, May 11, 2012

Schwarma Memories

Suddenly there is a spike in the ordering of schwarmas based on The Avengers movie. How crazy is that? At the end of the film Ironman says, "Have you ever tried shawarma?...I don't know what it is, but I want to try it." Apparently he's not the only one. I guess many people are going to try it or else it's just reminding the rest of us, "Hey, it's been ages since I've had a schwarma. Thanks for reminding me!"

Today Bee reporter Blair Robertson writes about it in his article "Middle East dish hot new thing after it's served up in 'Avengers'". Yesterday he had Facebooked asking for input on good schwarmas around town. My response to him was - nowhere!

You see, I grew up with schwarmas because of living in Saudi Arabia. I was there from first through ninth grades and back for vacations until my dad retired in 1987, the same time I graduated college. (Side note: My parents actually missed my college graduation because they were busy driving out of the MidEast. Hmmm.  Priorities?) 

Schwarmas were almost always what we had for lunch or dinner when we went in to the neighboring Arab city of Al Khobar. Back in the day (1970s), there would be a schwarma stand every few blocks just like you would see a hot dog stand in New York. The rotisserie of meat is spinning and fresh Arab (pita) bread is ready to be filled. The bread was smaller than what is sold here and so most adults would order two or three. The filling? Lamb, tahini, chopped tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, and mint. For me a schwarma has to have some sprigs of fresh mint.

Here's the thing. Schwarmas are different everywhere you go. So let's start with what schwarma is.  Really it identifies the meat and how it is prepared. You recognize it first off by the rotisseries that hold large stacks of seasoned meat pieced together. 

Now here's where the craziness begins. Each country, or even region, has its own version. They might even be named differently. In Turkey it's called "doner", Greece it's a "gyro". The rotisserie could be holding beef, chicken, or lamb. For me, authentic Mideast is lamb.

Next comes the variations of fillings for the sandwich. I was amazed when I saw the schwarma variations listed in Wikipedia. Fillings can include: hummus, tahini, onions, tomatoes, pickles, cucumbers, lettuce, hot sauce, sour cream, french fries, and more!

I haven't been back to Saudi since 1986, but I hear disturbing news. I'm told that now some stands use hot dog buns! Horrible!

Here in the U.S. it is hard to find a good schwarma, especially since everyone has their own thoughts or memories of what it should be. Maalouf's puts pickles in and I have to pull those out. I really like the gyro at Petra. But yesterday someone put on Blair's Facebook question Babylon Market and so I went to check it out.

First of all I have to tell you I was instantly transported back in time to my childhood when I walked into the far back bakery area and saw the ovens and picked up a bag of still warm, fresh baked Arab bread! OMG! Serious flashbacks!  Of course the ovens of my memory were crumbling brick in the back of some grimy Arab store in downtown Al Khobar. And the traditional ovens have a lot of ash. After all, in the desert the Arabs bake the bread in the ash of their fires. To me, you can't get more authentic than to have a bit of fire ash coating your bread!

Then I went to order a schwarma. Babylon sells beef or chicken, so I went with the beef. Here's the best part - they ask you what you want in terms of fillings! It's done counter-style and so you can see the bins of hummus, onions, etc. and pick what you want. What I liked is that they had chopped pepperoncinis too. Their bread is shaped different to what I'm used to, but it was good. The meat was flavorful and moist. It had definitely been seasoned or marinated. I would have to say give it a try. 

I have yet to find the schwarma of my childhood Stateside, but there are still fine examples around town. Maybe I just need to bring a bag of fresh mint with me next time I go.

Added note: Love Cafe Morocco, but I always get the Kufta there. 

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