What is Beef Shawarma? A Guide to the Popular Middle Eastern Street Food

Beef shawarma is a thinly sliced marinated beef that is a wildly popular street food in the Middle East and around the world. With its tantalizing mix of flavors and textures, shawarma has become a global sensation. But what exactly is beef shawarma and how is it made?

A Brief History of Shawarma

The origins of shawarma can be traced back to the 19th century in Ottoman Turkey, where the dish was inspired by doner kebab. Vertical rotisseries were used to cook stacked slices of marinated lamb, which created evenly cooked and seasoned meat.

As doner kebab spread to the Middle East, each region put their own spin on it, eventually evolving into what we know as shawarma. The use of chicken and beef emerged as cheaper alternatives to lamb.

The shawarma we know today was likely perfected in the bustling streets of cities like Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus, where they were served as portable street food in warm flatbreads.

How Traditional Beef Shawarma Is Made

Authentic beef shawarma is made using special equipment and technique:

  • Meat selection – Thin slices of beef are stacked and pressed onto a vertical rotisserie spit. Common cuts include sirloin, flank, or flap steak.

  • Marinade – The meat is marinated for days in a blend of oils, vinegar, garlic, and Middle Eastern spices like cumin, cardamom, allspice, pepper, and coriander.

  • Rotisserie cooking – The spit slowly rotates next to a heat source for hours, self-basting the meat in its juices and marinade as it cooks. This tenderizes the meat fully.

  • Slicing – Once cooked through, thin shavings of meat are sliced off the outer surface of the rotating spit to order.

  • Serving – Hot slices of beef shawarma are stuffed into a pita or flatbread then topped with veggies and tahini sauce.

The combination of slow cooking, marination, and rotisserie slicing gives shawarma its trademark tenderness and intense seasoning.

How to Make Beef Shawarma at Home

You don’t need special equipment to make shawarma. With a few simple steps, you can recreate flavors of traditional beef shawarma:

  • Meat – Use flap steak, flank steak, or sirloin sliced against the grain into thin strips.

  • Marinade – Whisk olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and Middle Eastern spices like cumin, paprika, cardamom, cloves, coriander, and allspice.

  • Marinating – Toss beef strips with marinade. Refrigerate 1-2 hours, turning occasionally.

  • Cooking – Cook marinated beef in a skillet over medium-high heat until just cooked through, about 8-10 minutes.

  • Serving – Stuff hot beef into warm flatbread like pita along with veggies and creamy tahini sauce.

While not exactly identical, this easy skillet preparation captures those classic shawarma flavors.

Popular Toppings and Sides for Shawarma

Simply seasoned meat is just the start of shawarma. Typical garnishes and accompaniments give it a boost of color, crunch, creaminess, and acidity:

  • Tahini sauce – A velvety sesame paste sauce provides a touch of richness.

  • Hummus – The creamy chickpea dip complements the chargrilled meat.

  • Tomatoes – Diced tomatoes lend freshness and moisture.

  • Onions – Sliced raw white or red onions give a pungent crunch.

  • Pickled turnips – Quick-pickled turnip slices offer tangy contrast.

  • Hot sauce – A dash of harissa, sriracha, or chili sauce brings heat.

  • Parsley – Fresh parsley adds herbaceous flavor and color.

  • Labneh – The thick strained yogurt cheese makes a cool finishing touch.

Don’t be afraid to customize your shawarma with toppings you love. The meat itself takes center stage.

Popular Proteins for Shawarma

While beef is a traditional choice, shawarma can feature all kinds of meat:

  • Chicken – Chicken breast or thigh meat works well, staying juicy when thinly sliced.

  • Lamb – Rich, fatty lamb replicates the classic doner kebab shawarma is based on.

  • Turkey – Lean ground turkey can be shaped onto the rotisserie spit.

  • Veal – Buttery, delicate veal makes a luxurious version.

  • Goat – Robust goat meat stands up boldly to spices and char.

No matter what protein you use, marinating and rotisserie cooking remain key to developing the signature shawarma flavor.

How Shawarma Became a Global Sensation

Several factors helped shawarma gain worldwide popularity:

  • Levantine diaspora – Political conflicts in the Middle East led to waves of immigrants bringing their food traditions abroad.

  • Adaptable flavors – The basic formula of meat, flatbread, and veggies transcends cultures.

  • Portability – As fast food, shawarma fits today’s on-the-go lifestyles.

  • Customization – Diners can make shawarma their own with countless sauce and topping options.

  • Health benefits – With lean meat and fresh produce, shawarma makes for a nutritious meal.

Much like gyros, tacos, banh mi, and doner kebab, shawarma has become a cherished staple around the world.

Is Shawarma Healthy?

When made properly, shawarma can be a nutritious choice:

  • Lean proteins – Chicken and sirloin beef provide quality protein without too much saturated fat.

  • Vegetable toppings – Load it up with fiber-rich raw veggies like tomatoes, onions, and pickles.

  • Whole wheat flatbread – Opt for whole grain pita over white to add nutrients.

  • Yogurt-based sauces – Tzatziki and tahini sauce contribute protein and minerals.

  • Portion control – Stick to a single pita sandwich or bowl versus multiple servings.

To make your shawarma healthier, skip extras like french fries and baklava, while loading up on fresh produce.

Key Takeaways About Shawarma

To summarize, here are the key facts that define genuine beef shawarma:

  • Thin slices of marinated beefcooked on a vertical rotisserie at high heat.

  • Originated in the Middle East but enjoyed globally today.

  • Features bold, warming spices like cumin, cardamom, coriander and allspice.

  • Topped with cool, creamy tahini sauce and fresh veggies in flatbread.

  • Customizable street food often served rolled up in warm pita bread.

  • Can also be made at home by marinating and pan-searing steak.

With its addictive medley of tastes and textures, shawarma has earned its place as one of the world’s favorite ethnic foods.

How to Make Beef Shawarma at Home

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