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We’ve all succumbed to its late-night allure. At one time or another, our fuzzy senses have been beguiled by the hypnotic rotation of a blistering-hot rotisserie. We’ve been enticed by the heady aroma of sizzling meat, and drawn by the rhythmic pulse of a flashing neon sign that says ‘kebab’, ‘doner’, ‘gyro‘ or ‘shawarma’.
It’s as if the cover of darkness will mask the fact that you’ve eaten a sandwich consisting of some unclassifiable meat and fat, sliced off a revolving object that resembles an elephant’s foot. You’ve kidded yourself that you didn’t see droplets of sweat fall off the nose of a large and grubby man armed with an electric carving knife. And you wake up feeling dirty - often quite literally, thanks to the hot grease that ran down your sleeve to your elbow
Wherever you are in the world, the stereotype isn’t always good. In popular street food lore, the kebab can frequently found lurking in backstreet dives, where hygiene is a dirty word. The Turkish-style doner kebab - a solid exclamation mark of processed meat on a spit - is often spoken about with derision, whether it’s in the bazaars of Istanbul or on the streets of north London. Likewise with the Greek gyro, revolving outside a taverna in Greece. And in the Middle East, the shawarma has often been the butt of mocking jokes. Until recently.
Partly due to its grubby image, and partly because of real concerns about hygiene, the humble kebab is beginning to clean up its act. A doner kebab created by a London chef called Andy Bates gave the low-rent snack an haute-cuisine overhaul.
His creation consisted of Pyrenees milk-fed lamb, barrel aged feta cheese, Coeur De Boeuf tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and purple violet potatoes. It was rolled in saffron infused pita bread, finished with gold and platinum leaf, and paired with a glass of Krug champagne. And it cost a trifling £750. Cheap as chips, as they say.
But in the Middle East, where shawarmas spit and crackle on almost every corner, the humblest of street foods is undergoing a mini-revolution. There are still the classic shawarma dens that have garnered a reputation for reliability and cleanliness, and won a loyal following. And there are the bold establishment that are putting a new spin on the shawarma. Here are some of the best.
World Trade Centre Convention Centre, Dubai, UAE
Tel. +971 800 9453
The world’s first gourmet shawarma - a revolutionary, healthy and gentrified take on the traditional down-market wrap that’s already causing a storm in the United Arab Emirates. At Wild Peeta, there are no preservatives or trans fats. The vegetables are locally sourced and always fresh. And the sauces are homemade each day and spread onto a variety of freshly hand-baked all-natural pita breads, from white flour to high-fibre whole-wheat. All this in a meticulously clean environment, with original pop art and a young and energetic vibe.
Dbayeh Highway, Dbayeh, Beirut, Lebanon
Tel. +961 (0)4 542 842
This grand and imposing restaurant is a million miles from being a shawarma den. It’s Lebanese fine dining with a modern twist. So instead of mountains of mezze and meat, portions are controlled and presentation is elegant. Lots of classic Levantine dishes are given a contemporary makeover here - the kibbeh nayyeh is presented like sushi. And the shawarma is sliced diagonally and delivered like fresh spring rolls on Japanese-style earthenware plates.
2nd Circle, Jebel Amman, Jordan
Tel. +962 (0)6 464 5725
A shawarma fit for a King - quite literally. The rumour around town is that the Jordanian royal family have been known to stop at Reem for a late night bite. And who could blame them? Reem’s chicken and lamb shawarmas are the stuff of legend, as the long queues will testify. Bet the King didn’t have to wait in line.
Al Khalidiyah, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Tel. +971 (0)2 665 8700
With all of its bold development projects, Ferrari theme parks, five-star hotels and celebrity chef restaurants, Abu Dhabi is rapidly going upmarket. But its streetfood scene still lives on, and Lebanese Flower is one of its longest serving stalwarts. The shawarma here is flavoursome and bold, and has been known to lure customers into the restaurant for a taste of hummus or tabbouleh.
Rue Spears, Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon
Tel. +961 (0)1 379 778
In west Beirut, you’re never more than two syllables away from a great shawarma. Just say ‘Barbar’ to anybody, and they’ll point you in the direction of this fine establishment. Whether you like it served in a wrap or plated up with bread on the side, the shawarma here will have you lost for words.
Al Diyafah Street, Dubai, UAE
Tel. +971 (0)4 398 4723
Street food doesn’t get much better than this. You can feel the heat from the rotisserie as you sit outside this bustling Dubai restaurant, and watch the world go by. The shawarmas are top notch, but you might also be tempted by the felafel sandwiches and the cheese manakish. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Mar Mitre Street, Achrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon
Tel. +961 (0)3 334 040
It’s been said that if you get two Beirutis in a room, you’ll get three conflicting opinions. But when it comes to shawarma dens, Boubouffe is almost uniformly upheld as one of the city’s best. Deep in the trendy neighbourhood of Achrafieh, this kooky little restaurant serves up meaty, juicy wraps and typically lively debate.