While the jury is out on which place serves the best shawarma, Arva Ahmed be­lieves it’s time we came up with a name for these wrap and roll places


This col­umn is on a topic that I can write about with my eyes closed – yet I fear it will land me in trou­ble. So let me line up the dis­claimers. The opin­ions in this col­umn are based on my life in Dubai. It ex­cludes a dis­cus­sion of the equally (if not more) le­git­i­mate ver­sions in other cities of the Mid­dle East. It does not aspire to ad­dress the is­sue of au­then­tic­ity, not only be­cause food evolves in un­doc­u­mented ways, but be­cause the world has enough wars to fight. It up­holds the truth that taste is sub­jec­tive, even more so with foods that are so cheap, they be­come uni­ver­sally ac­ces­si­ble.

But that said, French fries in a shawarma should sim­ply be banned.

My ear­li­est mem­ory of shawarma was as a six-year-old sit­ting crossed-legged on the cold tiles of our new apart­ment in Deira. It was 1989, the year when my par­ents de­cided we would leave be­hind my friends and fa­mil­iar in Sharjah for a build­ing that had no other ten­ants yet ex­cept for us. The apart­ment had the “new smell” of fresh paint and wood var­nish, the en­tic­ing aro­mas of a new chap­ter of our life. As a six-year-old, the very thought of break­ing our rou­tine and sit­ting on an un­car­peted floor in an un­fur­nished apart­ment in an un­in­hab­ited build­ing eat­ing beef shawar­mas was like a fan­tasy re­play of The Swiss Fam­ily Robin­son. The mem­ory still gives me tin­gles.

The shawar­mas we ate that day were no or­di­nary shawar­mas. They were from one of the best Ara­bic cafe­te­rias on the north side of the creek: Au­to­matic. Now be­fore half of you ‘shawarma shurthas’ write me a ticket, let me clar­ify. Times have dras­ti­cally changed, prices have in­creased and cheap fries out of a frozen pack have el­bowed much of the meat out of our sand­wiches. Shawarma qual­ity in the city has come un­der the speed­ing wheel of change.

Au­to­matic used to be at the fore­front of rolling shawar­mas back in the ’80s and early ’90s, es­pe­cially the lit­tle cafe­te­ria on Rigga road. When your teeth sunk through the khubz or pita bread, they would dis­cover soft beef shreds, pars­ley, tahini, raw red onion curls and sliced tomatoes on the other end. It was sim­ple, fresh, nutty, veg­e­tal, juicy and meaty – the per­fect bal­ance un­der five dirhams. And French fries had no busi­ness be­ing in that sand­wich.

Res­i­dents in Bur Dubai and Satwa will vouch for their own shawar­mariyas, with Al Mal­lah, Al Ijaza and Eat & Drink be­ing at the fore­front. But those in Deira were united around the flavours of Au­to­matic’s beef and chicken shawar­mas un­til the cafe­te­ria was bro­ken down along with our hearts a few years ago. A road down from Au­to­matic, Aroos Da­m­as­cus on Mur­raqqa­bat has thank­fully stayed put. This clas­sic old-timer haunt with a 6-dirham spot-on beef shawarma is still a ‘sand­wish’ come true.

Opin­ions are di­vided over Al Mal­lah and I’m too much of a coward to pub­licly ad­mit where I stand. More­over, I have not tasted the tra­jec­tory of their shawarma since the be­gin­ning of time (i.e. 1985). Shawarma was some­thing my fam­ily ate in places near by. Trav­el­ling all the way to Satwa just for a shawarma, es­pe­cially with some of the best shawar­mariyas in the neigh­bour­hood, was just lu­di­crous. The first time I tasted an Al Mal­lah shawarma was only five years ago when I fi­nally rec­on­ciled with the idea that I was not be­tray­ing Deira’s shawar­mariyas by cross­ing the creek for a quick fix.

Not only has my ge­o­graphic shawarma span widened over the past few years, I have also switched my shawarma in­take from meat to chicken – and not all shawar­mariyas get both right. ‘Toom’ or the gar­lic aioli that glues to­gether the mar­i­nated chicken shreds with the veg­eta­bles and bread is one of the crit­i­cal in­flu­encers of taste. The mari­nade is equally im­por­tant, with some that can trans­form the chicken into semi-charred, moist ten­drils of wellsea­soned flavour and oth­ers that fail to mask its ‘chick­eny’ af­ter­taste. Two chicken shawarma stal­warts – Hatam Al Tai and Shi­raz Nights – fight it out next to each other on Baniyas Road by the creek. Each of these two shawar­mariyas boasts queues af­ter sun­set for their reg­u­lar and spicy chicken shawar­mas. Both places stamp their rolls with a heavy iron press over well-oiled grid­dles, seal­ing in the chicken juices and gar­lic paste into a crisp Ira­nian lavash pocket. Given how se­ri­ously I take my shawarma stud­ies, it

is only nat­u­ral that I have led groups of peo­ple to per­form blind taste com­par­isons be­tween the two ri­vals. 97 per cent of tasters across my var­i­ous groups have pre­ferred the same shawar­mariya, a win­ner I will not re­veal be­cause you owe it to your­self to do the com­par­i­son and take no one else’s word for it.

Beyond the sin­is­ter fries that sneak into sand­wiches these days, one of my three quib­bles around present-day shawarma in the city is how lean they have be­come. Of course shawar­mas would seem larger in my six-year-old palms than they do to­day – but even my par­ents whose palms have re­mained un­changed since the 80s speak of this dis­turb­ing change. A sec­ond wor­ry­ing is­sue, which makes me feel rather vul­ner­a­ble when giv­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, is that shawar­mariyas keep fluc­tu­at­ing in qual­ity. Just be­cause a place was good last year, does not mean it will be good this year. The most com­mit­ted shawarma sol­diers amongst us will per­se­vere in not tak­ing sides but rather ap­ply­ing our en­er­gies to­wards sam­pling and re-sam­pling as many meaty data points as we can.

And fi­nally, it is sur­pris­ing that we haven’t coined a word to dis­tin­guish the places that serve this ubiq­ui­tous food. Mex­ico has its taque­ria and Italy has its pizze­ria, but we haven’t re­ally named the places that serve what is pos­si­bly the only ‘true’ street food our city has. Which brings me to my real mo­tive for writ­ing this col­umn – not to tell you where to find Dubai’s best shawarma, but sim­ply to coin a word that should have en­tered our food lingo decades ago: The ‘shawar­mariya.’

Arva Ahmed guides tours through Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs at fry­ing­panad­ven­tures.com. She co-hosts a food pod­cast at fry­ing­pan.fm.

As cheap fries have el­bowed much of the meat out of our shawarma, its qual­ity has come un­der the speed­ing wheel of change

Aroos Dam­sacus in Deira serves very good shawarma – but is it the best?

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