Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Time for a Shawarma

The hummous is good, and the mohammara is better, but perhaps Syria’s greatest gastronomical gift is its shawarma. Ubiquitous in Damascus, shawarma comes in two forms: chicken and lamb. The best shawarma stands offer both.

Once I discovered Syrian shawarma, I could barely go a day without it. In Abu Mousa’s absence, the Al-Raie shawarma restaurant has become my home away from home. For lunch or dinner (unfortunately, shawarma is not available at breakfast time), I order my usual: one chicken sandwich, one beef and to wash it down, a bottle of ayran, a Turkish salty yogurt drink. It comes to 90 lira, or $1.80.

Shawarma is meant to be eaten standing. Outside most shawarma eateries, between 10 p.m. and midnight – dinnertime in Syria – crowds form, some eating their sandwiches, others waiting for their turn to order.

Once a fellow foreigner asked me, as we were enjoying our shawarma, “I wonder how they make the shawarma? How do they make it stick together?” I thought for a moment, and decided they were questions best not pondering.

The shawarma sandwich is shaved meat rolled in pita bread, which is almost always dipped in the grease that runs off the spit. It is then heated on a skillet until crispy or seared on the gas flames that cook the meat. A dollop of garlic mayonnaise comes at the end, the cherry on top of the cake that makes it taste that much better.

I like Al-Raie because they add sliced tomatoes to the usual pickles in the chicken sandwich. The lamb comes with tomatoes and parsley. I also like it for the quality of the meats. The lamb is so good that some people forgo the sandwich trappings and simply order a plate of meat.

But Al-Raie, which means “the shepherd,” is a 10 minute walk from my house, so I sometimes settle for the inferior local shawarma stand, which offers only chicken. The Kurdish shwarma chef there knows my order: one large sandwich with hot sauce and dibis romman (pomegranate extract) and one ayran. That comes to 65 lira, or $1.30. Mmmmmmmmm.