When I go to visit Abu Dhabi, me and my dad have a routine. We will be in the car, driving up to the barrier to get out of the airport carpark and without fail, we have this conversation:
Dad: Want to get anything on the way home?
It can be one o' clock in the morning or it can be two o'clock in the afternoon, I'll still want a shawarma. It's one of those things that only Arabs do well. They know the right combination of spices, how much thoom (garlic sauce) to put on, the pickle to chips ratio, and, by far the most important thing, when you can and can't add salad.
Too many times in Britain I have had a chicken shawarma where they have added lettuce and tomatoes. LETTUCE AND TOMATOES!!!! What is up with that??!!! Never before have I had a chicken shawarma with salad in it. On the side, but not INside. Lamb? Yes. Acceptable salad options in a lamb shawarma are parsley and tomatoes. Chicken? No. It's all about the chips and garlic. That's another thing, why has no shawarma place in Britain put chips with their chicken shawarma?
There are a couple of places in York where I have been falsely seduced into buying an "authentic Middle Eastern shawarma". Both places put salad into their sandwiches, one place used mayonnaise with the tiniest hint of garlic instead of actual thoom and the other place had some weird sweet chilli sauce thing instead. Both times I was torn between crying because I was so upset it wasn't authentic, or raging at the proprietor for calling a very obvious knock-off (and not a very good one) authentic. Fortunately in both cases common sense reigned and consoled me with "Megan, it's just a sandwich. Chill."
But, to me it's more than a sandwich. It's become something akin to a national dish. Outrage sparked among the Caribbean population of Britain when Jamie Oliver came up with "Jerk Rice". I mean, come on Jamie. Every single Arab country has their own version of shawarma and what it should be and what bread it should be in. I grew up with the Lebanese version and it's what I lean to when I make it at home.
Making your own shawarma is incredibly satisfying and it's easier than you think to find a good spice mix. Any Arabic/Asian shop or supermarket in the UK will have a packet mix for shawarma spice - and that's what I use. If you're dubious about the authenticity of the flavours, your basic mix contains your preferred amounts of these spices: coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom, salt, pepper. That's a basic mix. You can marinate lamb or chicken with it or any meat you prefer really but those are the most common ones and serve either on a plate for people to help them selves or in ready made sandwiches.
4 chicken thighs, boned, skinned and sliced into strips
1 tbsp shawarma spice mix
1 tbsp olive oil plus extra for salad dressing
1 head purple kale or 1 head purple cabbage, sliced in ribbons
1 red onion, thinly sliced
6 radishes, thinly sliced
1 lemon, juice only
1 small pot of thoom
Enough chips for 4 people (home made or frozen, it's your call. I used frozen)
4 rounds of Arabic khubz
Selection of pickled vegetables
This is a recipe set-up for sahn shawarma or 'shawarma on a plate'. If you want to make ready made sandwiches, leave the bread whole and load everything (except the salad) into it.
Preheat an oven to 200 degrees C and get your chips in if they're the frozen sort. Follow the cooking instructions on the packet but they should take 20-25 minutes. If you're making fresh, fry your chips and keep them warm in the oven (on a lower temperature so they don't burn).
Slice up your chicken thighs and put them in a bowl with the spice mix. Give it a good mix around so that every piece of chicken is nice and well coated. If you haven't made your thoom yet, make it now using my recipe from the "Kiss the Cold Away" post.
Heat the table spoon of olive oil in a frying pan and then add the chicken. Make sure it's all in the oil in a single layer. Leave it to cook on the first side until it's nice and crispy (about 4 minutes). Meanwhile, slice up your veg for the salad and lay it out on a platter. Start with the cabbage at the bottom, then the onions then the radishes on top. Mix the lemon juice with twice that volume of olive oil and 1 tsp of salt to make a salad dressing. Pour it over the salad.
When the chicken is ready on the first side, give it the same amount of time on the second side. When the chips are ready, lay them on the opposite side of the platter to the salad. Wrap your bread in tinfoil and heat it in the oven for 5 minutes. when it comes out, slice each round into quarters and serve in a bread bowl.
Lay your thoom and pickles out on the table so people can choose their preferred preserved veg and spoon on their preferred amount of garlic. When the chicken is fully cooked and crispy, lay it on the platter between the chips and salad. Serve the best sharing feast you'll ever make.