Know your shawarma – Truths about this yummy meat roll and how safe it is to consume

Photo: Vershinin89/

Shawarma is once again under the eye of a storm. Undoubtedly, this favourite street snack reached Kerala via the Middle East. But did you know that Shawarma actually originated from Lebanon? Also the land of Malayalee’s favourite foreign writer, Khalil Gibran. And like Gibran’s poetry, Shawarma also captured the world. The dishes origin dates back to the first half of the 15th century. Shawarma is an Arabic word with origins from the Turkish term Sevirme. Shawarma actually means rotating.

It was the tourists who came from Lebanon who introduced Shawarma to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. From Saudi, it later migrated to Pakistan and Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The Lebanese workers also introduced it to Mexico in 1920. Shawarma is also a popular fast food in Canada, Ottawa and Montreal. It was when shawarma stalls opened at Piccadilly circus in 1970 that it reached Britain.

Initially in the Gulf countries, it was people from Turkey, Syria and Lebanon who were well versed in the art of making shawarmas. But when Malayalis started migrating to the Gulf, the narrative changed. Soon, Malayali's mastered the magic of making shawarmas. It first reached Kerala 20 years ago at Malappuram. It is claimed that Moideen Kutty Haji sold shawarmas for Rs 15 at Malappuram Jubilee road Palace Hotel.

Shawarma is a process in which you take seasoned meat (lamb, chicken, or beef) and place it vertically on a spit and slow roast it. Since you add tomato and lemon on the sides, the juice of the meat also blends into them. The meat as and when it cooks is sliced by a long knife and used. This meat is further cut into small pieces along with cabbage, carrot and tomato. The mixture along with garlic sauce is placed on a kuboos and then it is ready to roll.

The choice of meat depends on the availability of meat in each country. Since goat farming was a major occupation in Lebanon, they used lamb meat for their shawarmas. In Saudi they used beef and goat and Mexico and other countries preferred chicken. Though chicken, beef and goat are ideal for shawarma, Keralites mostly prefer chicken. To add a local touch to it, they also have it along with pickled carrots, beetroot and green chillies.

Photo: Hakan Tanak/

Now comes the bad side of shawarma. It is the presence of a poisonous substance called botulinum toxin that proves fatal when it comes to shawarma. Usually, we use cold partially cooked meat and again reuse it to make shawarma. When you keep cooling and heating the meat, it doesn’t get cooked fully. That causes clostridium bacteria in meat, which in turn creates botulinum toxin. Then you can of course argue as to why no harm has happened to those who have been consuming it for years. The bacteria don’t have the ability to withstand high temperatures. So we can say that it is careless cooking that leads to such fatalities.

So next time when you are ordering your shawarma, ensure that the place is hygienic, follows the practices and norms set by the food safety departments and do not have a history of serving stale food.

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