Shawarma and the Streets

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Peri Peri Chili Powder ChefSmartyPants
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There’s something romantic about sitting down at the table for a meal. You establish a special connection to the people around you, the food in front of you and the building housing you, whether that be a home or restaurant. It’s grounding, comforting and familiar. 

But sometimes, you crave something more adventurous. A meal that doesn’t just connect you to the immediate, intimate crowd around you, but to an entire city and culture; a cuisine you can carry and munch on the move. Everything about it is exciting, accessible and downright delicious.

That’s street food.

Throughout much of the globe, street food is a staple, and has been for a long, long time. Shawarma’s introduction as street sustenance is relatively new, at least in the context of human history. A technique developed in 19th-century Ottoman Empire, shawarma made its way to Middle Eastern streets in no time. Now, spinoffs can be found well beyond the bounds of the Middle East. You can find shawarma’s DNA in everything from gyros to tacos, so let’s take a delicious dive into its lineage. Call it ‘23 and Meat?’ 

For starters, shawarma actually isn’t the original. The technique began in what is now Turkey; thus, it’s kin to the Turkish döner kebab. But, with an incredible rise to prominence, shawarma is often considered the more popular variety of the vertical rotisserie preparation.

When peeking at a map, the döner kebab/shawarma style’s arrival in Greece isn’t far-fetched. The modern gyro came to be in the early 20th century, brought to Greece by immigrants from nearby Asia Minor and the Middle East. The Greek spin typically includes tzatziki, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and fries wrapped by a lightly grilled piece of pita. In Greece, particularly Athens, it shares the stage with souvlaki (still meat in pita, minus the vertical rotisserie) as the most prominent Greek street food.

Greece’s proximity to the Middle East and old Ottoman lands made it a prime destination for the shawarma style to spread. So, what explains its influence in Mexico? Well, the reason is actually quite similar: . A number of migrants moved to Mexico from Lebanon in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before long, tacos al pastor were introduced, first in Puebla.

Even in name, al pastor is a nod to its Middle Eastern roots, meaning “in the style of the shepherd.” In the Mexican variety, pork is marinated in a pungent red chili sauce and roasted on a vertical spit and then shaved onto tortillas and topped with onions, cilantro and salsa. It’s fairly common to add pineapple to the mix as well.

Mexico has a rich menu of street food options, which explains why a large portion of Mexico City opts for it at least once a week. Tacos al pastor have only bolstered the already tasty reputation of the taco, making it one of the more sought-after orders en las calles. It’s also a testament to its predecessor: shawarma. Without its inclusion in Mexico’s culinary history and infusion in its gastronomical traditions, tacos al pastor wouldn’t be the porky powerhouse it is today.



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