If you’re reading this, you're probably trying to figure out what a shawarma is. No, it isn’t some kind of exotic animal or headscarf, but a very filling pita wrap. Take a walk around the culture centers of any big city and you’ll be sure to find a Greek or Lebanese restaurant with shawarmas made to order. Today, shawarma is one of the world’s most popular street foods. If you’re familiar with Greek gyros then you’re on the right track. For those looking for a savory meal, look no further than these delicious pita-wrapped dishes.
Shawarma is made from marinated meat, usually goat, lamb, or beef, that has been spit roasted for several hours. The meat is sliced very thinly, then stuffed into a pocket of pita bread. The meat is roasted in a wide variety of spices like bay leaves, cinnamon, dried lime, vinegar, and cardamom. Vegetables and other ingredients like cucumber, tomato, onion, lettuce, and parsley are also stuffed into the pita. Shawarma is also served with yogurt, hummus, tabbouleh, or mango sauce on the side or in the wrap. However, this is no tzatziki. The end result is a savory and tangy dish of meat, veggies, and pita.
Shawarmas are usually eaten by hand like a sandwich or burrito, but can be eaten with a fork and knife as well. Though very delicious, shawarmas aren’t the healthiest meal. Since the meat is spit roasted, there is a constant stream of fat running down each slice of meat, hence its savory flavor and high calorie content. For a healthier option, trade the beef for chicken instead.
But why the funny name? Shawarma also pronounced "chowarma," is an Arabic rendering of the Turkish word çevirme, which means “turning.” This refers to the turning rotisserie of the kebab. In short, shawarma is a lot of flavor packed into a small package and is an exquisite taste of Turkish cuisine.
Though the spit roast has been around since ancient times, the Turkish method of slicing meat off the kebab originated in the Ottoman Empire sometime in the 19th century. Both the shawarma and Greek gyro share their lineage from this.
For the first half of the 20th century, shawarmas were largely unknown to Western consumers. I wasn’t until after the Second World War that the wrap became a large staple. Following the war, Turkish people relocated all across Europe bringing their cuisine with them. In Germany in particular, thousands of kebab shops opened all over the country. It was only a matter of time before shawarmas became a favorite in other parts of Europe and even the U.S.
So how does the Turkish shawarma differ from the Greek gyro? So far they sound pretty similar– both contain meat served from a kebab alongside vegetables and wrapped in pita. However, the difference is really in the ingredients and preparation. Simply put, when preparing shawarma you have a lot more wiggle room. You can choose to serve it with chicken, lamb, veal, or goat, and any variety of spices and toppings (even french fries). But, shawarma’s secret ingredient is pickled vegetables – they are what make shawarmas especially unique from its Greek counterpart.
Gyros, on the other hand, are served with primarily beef, lamb or a combination of the two, along with its signature tzatziki sauce. Other than that, the differences between the two are largely as regional as the differences between Turkey and Greece itself. Regardless of preference, each one tastes delicious.
If you find yourself at the food truck hesitating on what to pick, fear no more! You now know the differences between a shawarma and a gyro, but no matter the choice you’re in for a hearty meal.