How safe is it to consume shawarma?

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. Photo: Vershinin89/

Shawarma is once again under the eye of a storm after another youngster lost life in Kochi recently, allegedly after consuming the popular snack. Six more are seeking treatment too, as per reports. Though the snack draws a lot of flak every time such incidents happen, foodies go back to it due to the easy availability, taste and pocket-friendliness. However, is that all you should care about when you relish it? 

When is it not safe?
Shawarma becomes poisonous when a substance called botulinum toxin gets generated in it. Usually, cold, partially cooked meat is used to prepare shawarma. If the cooling and re-heating process is not done following norms set by the food safety department, the meat might not cook well and this can generate clostridium bacteria in meat, which in turn creates the botulinum toxin.

In that case, how has it not affected many who eat it often? The bacteria don’t have the ability to withstand high temperatures. When cooked well and eaten soon after cooking, it does not normally lead to health issues. When both of these criteria are not met, those who consume it can be at risk. So the next time you are ordering your shawarma, ensure that the place is hygienic, follows the practices and norms set by the food safety departments and does not have a history of serving stale food.

Its interesting history
Undoubtedly, shawarma 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 dish's 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.

Shawarma came to Kerala via the Middle-East. Photo: Hakan/Tanak/

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, Malayalis 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) 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.

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