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What is Shawarma?

By C.B. Fox
Updated May 16, 2024
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Shawarma is a type of street food that can be found in many countries in the Middle East. It can be purchased quickly from street venders and consumed on-the-go. Though the recipes for and ingredients in shawarma differ from region to region, traditionally, the dish consists of meat, a sauce, and various toppings, which are all wrapped together in a piece of flatbread. The dish is often cooked outside, though concerns about the safety of outdoor cooking have led some countries to require that cooking be done indoors and under strict sanitary guidelines.

Though shawarma is a dish found all over the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe, the word itself is an approximation of an Arabic word. In Arabic, shawarma is a verb that means, “to turn.” In other countries that have a shawarma-like dish, the word for the dish varies, but the meaning remains the same. The Greek dish gyros, the Turkish dish doner kebab, and the Armenian dish tarna all have names that are variations of the word for turning.

The first place to have served shawarma was the Turkish city of Bursa. In Bursa, the dish was called by its Turkish name, doner kebab. It was invented in the 19th century and quickly gained popularity as it was adopted by nearby societies.

Most of the time, shawarma and other similar dishes employ the use of a vertical, turning spit in order to cook the meat. Thin slices of meat — commonly chicken, beef, lamb, or goat — are arranged on the spit in a cone-shape, with the wide end on top. The spit is turned above or in front of a heating element, which slowly cooks the meat over the course of the day. The meat on the outside of the cone, which cooks faster than the meat on the inside, is shaved off and placed in the wrap as it is ordered. Occasionally, the meat is cooked over a charcoal grill on horizontal skewers.

Shawarma may be named for the way the meat is cooked, but there are a number of other important ingredients in the dish as well. The bread that is used to wrap the ingredients together is usually the type of flatbread that is traditionally eaten in the area. Lavash, pita, and taboon are are often used. Various types of sauces are also used in a shawarma, including garlic sauce, tahini, or amba. When they are available, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers are often put into the wrap as well.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006101 — On Jan 28, 2022

This information was so greatly appreciated by me I love the way you guys explain it and continue on with what else to have with it and the variations of shawarma. I do thank you for taking time to explain the different ways of preparing and eating it. Thank you so much for your information.

By donasmrs — On Jul 26, 2012

My close friend's dad runs a small restaurant where he sells shawarma. I go to their restaurant a lot to eat and to hang out with my friend. Once, his father told me how to make shawarma. He is very proud of his shawarma and I think he was bored that day.

He said that the secret of shawarma is great meat. The meat apparently has to have the perfect ratio of lean meat and fat for it to be delicious. If it's too lean, it'll be too dry and if there is too much fat, it will be too oily.

The other reason that it's good is because it cooks very slowly and evenly since it spins around. It's the same idea as rotiserrie chicken. He also said that shawarma is healthy because while it is cooking, the excess fat melts and drips off of the meat.

I probably didn't need to know so much about shawarma but I'm still glad he told me about it. I didn't realize that shawarma is popular in many countries. If I ever meet an Arab, a Turk or Greek, at least I'll have something to talk about.

By ZipLine — On Jul 26, 2012

I didn't know there was chicken shawarma until I went to Turkey. I came across shawarma in many restaurants in the US, but it was always either made of lamb or beef. I'm sure there are restaurants that make chicken shawarma too but I never came across it. I actually avoided shawarma while I was in the US because I dislike lamb. I'm just not used to having lamb, it tastes and smells odd to me.

So when I was visiting Turkey and saw that chicken shawarma, called "tavuk doner" is available everywhere, I was so happy! In fact, most doner in Turkey is made of beef not lamb. And restaurants always have two spits for the doner so that they can make a beef doner on one and a chicken doner on the other.

Turkish shawarma is also different in that there is no sauce. They usually just put a combination of raw slivered onion treated with a herb called sumac. Sometimes they also put lettuce in it too. It's much dryer than the Greek gyro but you're supposed to have it with a yogurt drink called "ayran."

By SteamLouis — On Jul 25, 2012

I like lamb shawarma a lot. We had a street vendor close to campus when I was in college that made shawarma right there on the street. When we stayed up late and got hungry, we would go over to the vendor with some cash and pick up fresh shawarma. It's probably the best late night food.

Students who had just left a party or get together loved it too. It was hard to find open places that served food at late hours near campus. So I guess the popularity of the shawarma vendor was kind of due to necessity too.

Even when I have multiple types of foods to choose from though, I still enjoy having shawarma. The meat is just so delicious and since it's eaten with bread, it's really filling. I also like that I can eat it on the go and don't have to look for a place to sit down to have it.

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