Customers and proprietors alike have strong feelings about the ubiquitous shawarma sandwich. It may be a relatively simple offering, but it stirs up complex emotions.
My Shawarma: an inside look at the region's favourite sandwich
As the 40th anniversary of the UAE approaches, it's easy to get swept up by the big events on the way. But by focusing solely on such festivities one could fail to see some of the country's oldest icons right in front of us, or in the case of the humble shawarma, underneath our noses.
For nearly the UAE's whole existence the shawarma store has been an omnipresent feature of the culinary landscape. For locals and expats alike, the shawarma and its traditionally low price (Dh5 average) have survived the cultural tsunami of globalisation and the global financial crisis.
Al Akawy Cafeteria is an example of such longevity. Located on Airport Road in Abu Dhabi, the small store is flanked by two giant fast-food chains and hotel apartments catering to western expats. The fact that it is still operational, let alone profitable, is a testament to the shawarma's durability.
But the manager, Mohammed Al Janem, says he never feared for the future of the store his father started 28 years ago upon arriving from Syria.
He rises from his chair behind the cash register, facing the main counter housing the revolving lamb and chicken spits, walks outside and points to the half-empty dining halls of his competitors.
"We don't have the money for the advertising and the colourful signs," he says. "But what we have is customer loyalty built by years and generations."
Indeed, the customers stepping into Al Akawy are mostly regulars and families. Al Janem greets them with the bedside manner of a village doctor, enquiring into the family's state of affairs; smiling children are given small falafels to chew on while the main orders are swiftly made.
Outside Al Akawy, waiters race to beeping cars where drivers register takeaway orders.
Sultana is behind the wheel of a black Mercedes, with her two children. She says she has been visiting Al Akawy "as long as I can remember"; while she finds the shawarmas "quite good", it's the consistency that keeps drawing her back.
"Well, a shawarma is something simple to make," she says. "But in some stores the shawarmas are up and down; sometimes too oily, sometimes dry. I pick a place that is always the same. It has to be clean always."
The term "clean" or "natheef" is probably the best compliment one could give a shawarma store. It refers not only to a restaurant's health and safety practices; but it also describes its decor and atmosphere and the employees' physical appearance.
Al Najem says that, unlike most restaurants where the cooks are tucked away behind kitchen walls, the shawarma maker is always on display; hence a jovial mood and a clean appearance are musts.
"It is very important," he says. "Our place is natheef and the people who make the shawarma look respectable. I guess most people would want to buy their dinner from someone who looks like he is enjoying it than from someone whose eyes are miserable."
One such someone trained to watch even the most subtle mannerism of professionals is Mohammed Seif. As a football referee in the local Pro League, Seif has been coming to Al Akawy regularly for five years when officiating matches near the neighbourhood.
"It has to smell good and be natheef," he says of his ideal shawarma. "Not too greasy, you know what I mean? Then I see the person, not the meat, but the person working on the meat. He must look respectable, clean. Is his shirt hanging out? Does he look enthusiastic or doesn't care? These are important things I consider before I decide."
However, once Seif commits he orders with gusto; in his hand on this occasion is a plastic bag packed with five shawarmas.
"It doesn't affect my officiating," he says with a grin. "It's light and goes down easy - but that still means you have to run and exercise."
While there is no official history tracing the shawarma's arrival in the Gulf, the consensus is that it made its way from Turkey. The name shawarma comes from the Turkish word çevirme, which means "turning"; now the Turks call the dish döner kebab, which translates to "turning kebab".
In Greece the kebab was renamed the gyro and was served with tzatziki (a tangy yogurt dip), tomato, onion and fried potatoes. In Hungary it is served on a plate with pasta, or the sandwich is injected with hot paprika sauce. In South Korea it is served with chicken, white cabbage and honey mustard.
The Middle Eastern variant, the shawarma, is a simpler concoction with an emphasis placed firmly on the meat rather than supplements. Eaten mostly with pitta bread, shaves of meat are placed atop a bed of tahini (grounded sesame seeds) sauce - and garlic paste for chicken - onions, tabbouleh and pickled cucumbers and turnips.
The clincher is the quality of meat - or the spices in the marinade - that distinguishes one shawarma outlet from another.
While most managers and shawarma cooks are forthcoming in talking about their establishments, they draw a line at discussing the secret spices.
"Absolutely not!" Mohammed Mosalem says from his shawarma store, Sannine on Hamdan Street. "But I can tell you the secret of our name."
Mosalem points above his register to a faded picture of a rugged mountain overlooking a crystal blue sea. He proudly explains that is the Jabal Sanin in Lebanon's north, where the famed cedars grow.
"We have our own spices, which we passed down the generations, and it's my job to keep the tradition going. That is by being good at what we do," he says. "A lot of shawarma places are generational. They started with our fathers who came here. Our job is to keep progressing but not change the essence."
Operating for 35 years, Sannine has built a reputation for serving one of the capital's best shawarmas, and has a dedicated clientele.
For Ali Al Hosany, each bite takes him back to his childhood. Now in his 30s, he says the store acted as the meeting point for high school friends and football teammates.
"We would catch nearly each day at a shawarma store with my friends and I would order lamb, chicken and falafel shawarmas and we would talk about our day," he says. "When you chat with your friends you tend to eat a lot, hence I have this big gut!"
Standing in the car park are old friends Mohammed Aamer and Shumesh. Shumesh says he likes Sannine for its minimalism.
"Some of these shops, they try to put too much into the shawarmas; all these sauces or one time a person even added spinach to it. Sometimes the meat is too oily or just too watery. Here the sandwich is not too busy."
Anyone who visits the Lebanese Flower restaurant in Khalidiya faces an assault on the senses, from the cacophony of car horns to the blazing neon lights outside, to the whirlwind of darting waiters inside, rushing in all directions with bags full of shawarmas and fistfuls of receipts. In the middle is the manager who, through rapid arm movements, directs his staff to the waiting cars. Behind him is a queue of multicultural customers.
Barbara Pavelka, a nurse from the US state of Minnesota, says that after observing how the locals gathered over shawarmas, she created a weekly "shawarma and movie night" among friends and new arrivals.
"What we do is get our shawarmas, meet at a friend's house and we eat first and watch the movie later - you can't mix the movie and the shawarmas, you want to savour it," she says.
Arlene Tan, a reservations officer for Al Ghazal Taxis, says her thrice-weekly visits to Lebanese Flower are about more than dinner.
"I want to open a shawarma shop in the Philippines. I need to know how to marinate the chicken. They wouldn't say anything to me, so I have to learn it from the internet."
At Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La Hotel, Konstantinos Panou, the Greek chef, says the shawarma served at the international buffet restaurant Sofra Bld is miles away from the free-wheeling local style. For one thing, he ditched the pitta bread and replaced it with Arabic flatbread, and serves the shawarma as an open plate.
He says the minimalism and inconsistency of the shawarma sometimes works against it.
"Other than the hotels it is difficult to buy a good shawarma because of the quality of the ingredients," he says. "Maybe outside they put too much fat so it is very oily, maybe they put powdered spices so then it becomes very heavy. Also here we serve the garlic on the side and we serve it as an open plate, so we give the person options."
Even so, Panou believes the shawarma should not be radically changed. "I am not a fan of modern versions. I think it is something traditional to this region, something that represents its heritage, so leave it as it is."
Sannine's Mosalem bristles at the notion of modernising his shawarmas. He goes to the heart of the UAE's shawarma story.
"It's not just a business. It's a tradition," he says. "What I am doing, what most of us do, is not just making shawarmas, it's continuing what our fathers started. It's part of our life and I hope the shop is here after I am, God willing, for a hundred years more."
MAKE IT YOURSELF
Shawarma from the Sofra Bld
750g plain yogurt
5 tbsp black pepper, crushed
1 tbsp squeezed lemon juice
5 tbsp salt
10 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Fresh red chilli
3 tbsp coriander powder
2 tbsp nutmeg powder
4 tbsp cardamom
500ml corn oil
1kg boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Fresh onions, finely
Fresh tomatoes, finely chopped
1. Mix together the yogurt, crushed black pepper, lemon juice, salt, finely chopped garlic, chilli, coriander powder, nutmeg powder, cardamom, vinegar and corn oil to make a marinade.
2. Marinate the chicken and put in fridge 2-4 hours.
3. Grill the marinated chicken and shred it finely.
4. Wrap in Arabic flatbread with onions, tomatoes and pickles.
5. Add the chilli sauce, tahini sauce and garlic paste.
AL AKAWY Airport Road near the corner of 15th Street, 02 446 3690
SANNINE Hamdan Street, Tourist Club Area, 02 676 8877
LEBANESE FLOWER Behind Electra Street and 26th Street, 02 665 8700
SOFRA BLD Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, Between the Bridges, 02 509 8888, www.shangri-la.com