The World on a Spit: Shawarma and its influence on global cuisine

By Ammon Lucero

Personal Connection

Growing up in a Mexican household, food and history always played a central role in my life. Each large gathering featured an irresistible array of dishes. Even a modest weeknight dinner felt special due to my mother's loving touch that transformed simple ingredients into comforting delights. This culinary passion was a family trait—my grandparents, who owned a Mexican restaurant and deli, instilled in me the significance of crafting and understanding the stories that come from exceptional cuisine. To them, food transcended mere sustenance; it was an expression of their identity and a way to connect with and be seen by others. Consequently, I developed a keen interest in discovering and savoring the best versions of any dish that might grab my attention and learning everything I could. Among my favorite dishes is tacos al pastor, which shares a fascinating connection with shawarma.

A Brief History of Shawarma

Shawarma is a Levantine dish with a rich history dating back to the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean region, particularly in Turkey and Lebanon. Initially prepared as street food for laborers and working-class communities, shawarma's popularity quickly spread throughout the Arab world, where it became an integral part of local cuisine and a symbol of cultural identity.

At the heart of shawarma lies a delectable blend of ingredients. The dish typically consists of thinly sliced, marinated meat—often lamb's neck, chicken, beef, or a combination of these—stacked on a vertical spit and slowly roasted. The marinade often includes a mix of yogurt, garlic, and a variety of spices such as cinnamon, cumin, paprika, and turmeric, which lends the dish its distinct flavor profile. The power of spices and marination plays a crucial role in transforming these simple ingredients into a culinary masterpiece.

The cooking process is equally captivating. The word shawarma is an adaptation of the Turkish word çevirme meaning ‘turning,’ a descriptive nod to the fact that it turns on its axis while roasting. The meat rotates slowly on a vertical spit, allowing it to cook evenly and develop a tantalizing, crispy outer layer. As the meat roasts, the juices from the top layers trickle down, basting the lower layers and intensifying the flavors. Once cooked, the meat is expertly shaved off the spit and served in a warm pita or flatbread, often accompanied by a generous helping of tahini sauce, pickles, and fresh vegetables.

An essential element in shawarma's appeal is the street-side theater it offers. The rotating spit, the sizzle of the roasting meat, and the expert hands of the shawarma master slicing the cooked outer layers into thin, succulent pieces create a sense of anticipation that adds to the overall experience of enjoying the dish.

Cultural Influence, Appropriation, and Adaptations

Over time, shawarma's popularity transcended borders, and regional variations emerged to cater to local tastes. In Greece, shawarma evolved into gyros. In Mexico, it inspired the creation of tacos Árabes, which were made with lamb and served in a pita. Later, Mexican cooks replaced lamb with marinated pork, substituted the pita with corn tortillas, and added pineapple to give the tacos a sweet and savory flavor often found in Mexican cuisine. Like shawarma, al pastor tacos have an artful presentation and an equally descriptive name. The preparation of al pastor tacos involves the meat being meticulously stacked on a vertical spit in a shape strikingly similar to the ornate artisan spinning tops known by the same name in Mexico.

However, it's worth noting that the global popularity of shawarma and other Arab dishes has sparked discussions and disputes regarding cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the process by which a dominant culture takes aspects of a marginalized culture and claims them as their own, often erasing or devaluing the cultural meaning and value of the appropriated elements. This is particularly troubling for shawarma, as its commercialization has contributed to the commodification of Arab cuisine on a global scale, overshadowing the contributions of Arab chefs and entrepreneurs.

Addressing Cultural Appropriation

Arab immigrants brought shawarma with them as they settled in different parts of the world, allowing it to spread and gain influence in other cultures. Today, shawarma can be found from London to Los Angeles and even Tokyo. However, this global popularity has also sparked discussions and disputes about commercialization and appropriation in non-Arab cultures. These processes can strip a dish of its cultural meaning and value, perpetuating a power dynamic that privileges non-Arab voices at the expense of Arab chefs and entrepreneurs.

Anny Gaul, a cultural professor of gender and food in the Arabic speaking world at the University of Maryland, notes that "privilege and power…[are] questions of really concrete, tangible forms of power, because culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum." Rather than asking who owns something, we should ask "Who has the opportunity to benefit from it?" This means considering who is profiting from the sale of dishes like hummus or falafel, and what conditions allow them to set up restaurants or food companies to do so.

To address these issues, cultural food advocates such as Osayi Endolyn and Joudie Kalla call for greater recognition and celebration of cuisine from marginalized peoples, and its cultural importance. In the case of shawarma, this involves recognizing cultural origins, incorporating traditional recipes and cooking techniques, and collaborating with Arab chefs and entrepreneurs to promote and share their cuisine.

Comal, a "Heritage Food Incubator" in Denver, provides a space for program participants (often immigrant and refugee women) to "test their heritage recipes and grow with a restaurant owner mindset...reflecting the heritage of each entrepreneur." Comal is an excellent example of an organization that celebrates and appreciates different cultures, while also providing opportunities for individuals to build a livelihood that honors their cultural heritage.

A Homage to Shawarma

Despite these challenges, shawarma's rich history and cultural importance demonstrate food's power as a unifying force, bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds and traditions. In honor of shawarma and its enduring cultural significance, I present the following poem, done in a loose interpretation of the Andalusi Muwashshah style, a poetic form that originated in Islamic Spain, characterized by its rhyming couplets and refrain. This heartfelt tribute is my way of saying thank you to shawarma for the joy it brings to people around the world.

“Shawarma: A culinary endowment”

From ancient lands, to places far and wide
A taste that lives on, your influence won't hide
Savory and tender, shawarma's true delight
A fusion of flavors, a dance in each bite
Shawarma, your spirit we perpetuate

Through fragrant bazaars and bustling city streets
Your aroma entices, a symphony of treats
Inspired by your essence, al pastor emerged
Two cultures united, their flavors converged
Shawarma, your spirit we perpetuate

In each tender morsel, history unfolds
A tale of passion, of culinary stories told
Embracing your roots, we pay homage to thee
Oh shawarma, your legacy lives eternally
Shawarma, your spirit we perpetuate

A dance of spices, from cumin to thyme
A journey of flavors, a fusion most sublime
Your melody echoes through cities and towns
Shawarma, a dish that unites and astounds
Shawarma, your spirit we perpetuate

We celebrate you, oh shawarma, so grand
A testament to your reach across the land
May your legacy forever ignite
Our hearts and our taste buds, a culinary delight
Shawarma, your spirit we perpetuate

Concluding Thoughts

In celebrating the rich history and cultural significance of shawarma, I am fascinated by the compelling connection it shares with tacos al pastor, and the profound appreciation I have for this dish. Food and history have always played powerful roles in my life. Tacos al pastor and shawarma hold a special place in my heart because of their shared journey. They remind me of my Mexican heritage and the richness of the culture that emerged from the complex and often painful history of colonization and its aftermath.

As a person of mixed heritage born in the United States, I embody multiple cultural identities that coexist harmoniously but sometimes clash with each other. It is akin to a river that both nourishes and erodes the land, leaving behind a beautifully scarred canyon in its wake. However, my cultural identities also present challenges that require deep reflection and understanding, adding an intricate layer to who I am.

I feel that shawarma and al pastor share a similar complexity with my cultural identity and heritage, and as such, they deserve the same level of reverence, reflection, and understanding. Unfortunately, cultural appropriation has a troubling past that can make it difficult to fully celebrate the integration of cultural markers into mainstream food culture. In doing so, the rich histories and stories behind the food can often be overlooked or deliberately excluded, leaving a void in their significance.

In shawarma and al pastor, I see a convergence of cultures and a diffusion of spirit and identity that radiates a bright beacon of hope, offering optimism. Celebrating our differences can be unifying, and it should not be a zero-sum game in practice or appropriative in nature.

By exploring and savoring the diverse cuisines that the world has to offer, we can cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation for the culinary and cultural tapestry that makes us unique and connects us all. Let us honor culinary and cultural traditions, share in their distinctiveness, and celebrate our shared humanity. A shared hunger for understanding and happiness can be both delectable and uniting.

Written by Cultural Inclusivity on April 12, 2023