What is the difference between Turkish, Lebanese and Syrian shawarma?
Before one answers this question, it’s probably safe to assume not everyone knows what shawarma is. Shawarma mostly refers to meat roasted on rotating vertical spikes. You could make it in a flat pan but it won’t quite taste the same. The long and slow roasting in indirect heat is what results in its distinct smoky flavour.
The first time I experienced love at first sight is when I saw shawarma. It is a love that has lasted longer than most of my Facebook relationships.
A wise man once said find something you enjoy doing, get paid for doing it and you will be happy. I don’t think the girls who roam the streets at night are truly happy even though they do what many consider enjoyable. But who am I to question a wise man’s wisdom? I followed the advice, ventured into the shawarma business, a business I knew little about and which brought me grief. Just like most of those girls.
If you think giving up is a coward’s choice, ask the man who owns a failing business that he is passionate about. Many years later, I might still go back to it. My love for the dish still remains and every time I find a shawarma stand in a new city, I have to find out whether it tastes better than the last.
It came to pass therefore that in October 2015 I happened to arrive in Zanzibar, the spice island. If you happen to be in Zanzibar for whatever reason other than illegal ones, make sure you spend an evening at Forodhani Gardens. Forodhani is Swahili for habour. It is a small well paved public park with concrete benches, beautiful trees and a good breeze. On one side is the sea, the boats and the ships, and on the other are century old buildings dating back to the rule of the sultan.
At night the ghost of Forodhani awakens, coming to life in the form of the best street food market you will ever find. Vendors will prop up makeshift tables and offer you all manner of sea food done to perfection.
On my first visit, I came across a gentleman of middle eastern origin making shawarma. There were two other similar stands but I opted to try his just to feel whether his recipe was different and better than the usual East African fare. I must confess I was also attracted by his style of roasting the wrap bread on the vertical oven. It was my first time to see that and I wasn’t afraid of being the curious cat that gets killed, after all I was not in Nakuru.
Let’s call him Hamad. His English was bad and his Swahili was worse.
‘This very good, where this from?’
I spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to simplify my more than twelve years of studying another man’s tongue. I think if my teachers had spent an equal part of my life teaching me how to bark, I would be conversing with dogs by now.
‘From Syria’, he said.
‘You from Syria?’
‘Yes, I come here from Syria’
He said it with a broad smile but it wasn’t broad enough to mask the sadness that lingered behind his eyes. He had escaped the conflict. Yes, many have crossed over to Europe, Canada and other places in the West but Africa too has played host to Syrian refugees. You don’t have much choice of where to run when death is looming at you. You cannot say, ‘I would rather die than move to Africa’.
So we had a good and sad chat. He was a pleasant man and I left him to go sample other delicacies. I returned to his stand for another roll later, not sure because I needed it or because I wanted to support him or because it was just tasty.
When I visited the island again in December 2016, I went back to the harbour front for an evening snack. I was looking forward to that unforgettable Syrian shawarma roll but alas! The man wasn’t there! I thought maybe I had arrived too early, so I kept moving around the park and coming back to his spot hoping to see him. The night wore on and the man wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
There is an old man who sells the most tasty madafu (coconut drink) at Forodhani. I call him babu (grandpa) and he loves a good chit chat. He works with his grandson, whom he always snaps at. He complains the young generation is lazy. You can talk to him about anything.
‘Babu, have you seen Hamad?’
‘Hamad was a refugee, the government said he can’t sell here no more, they kicked him out.’
I love Syrian shawarma, I prefer it to the Lebanese or Turkish variety aka doner kebab. Yet Hamad had gone a step further and personalized his recipe to make it even tastier. He was trying to survive. Could he have been helped? Nope, he wasn’t human, he was a refugee. You can’t sell here.
And so I ask again, what is the difference between Syrian, Turkish and Lebanese shawarma?
They are all meat. The only difference is in the spicing. Just like humans.