My love story with the Shawarma started a long time back. It was in the late 80’s, when, as a small kid I used to hold my parents hands and walk towards the Mothercat junction in Sharjah, and used to find this strange looking thing being roasted between two tomatoes at the top and base and being worked up on and on.
Out of my inquisitiveness that was quite natural for a kindergarten going kid, I asked my parents what it was.
Achan told me – “It’s called Shawarma”
Amma was not quite happy with my question. She felt it was quite unwarranted for me to even think of looking at it.
She enlightened me – “Now, don’t look at it. It’s junk. See how they are cooking at it in open on a roadside without any protection from dirt and dust. You will get sick if you eat it”
This pulled me back.
Week after week, we kept walking towards the same destination every weekend, and as any little boy who always feels attracted to anything that is denied to him, I too started getting attracted to the looks of Shawarma. The prime magnetism towards it was the warmth that emanated from the oven when we passed by it. It gave a special feel to the cold winter evenings of the Middle Eastern desert, and it was driving me closer and closer to it.
At last, after weeks of serious thoughts and tough decision making, I decided to ask Dad to buy one for me the next time we come across it. I secretly asked him during the regular walk, “Achaa, enikku athu venam” (Dad, I want that thing). I made sure that these words were spoken in the most feeble and latent mode, as I did not want Amma to hear this and dissuade Achan from buying this for me.
Achan, without any hesitation bought me my first Shawarma. Amma was there watching with stricken eyes, fully disapproving of his actions. Without a single word being spoken, she was venting her anger through her eyes. For me, it was like I was the king of the world. I had got something that was supposedly not for me, and I relished the taste of meat rolled into bread. One full Shawarma was too huge for me at that age, but still managed to win the battle against the urge to stop eating it at half.
For the next twelve years, it was a grand banquet. Shawarma was part of my food habits almost every weekend, and by the end of the 20th century, I had tasted almost all varieties of Shawarma that was available at the food market – be it the Lebanese, Egyptian or the Indian version. Gradually, I graduated from having one to gobbling up at least two and half Shawarma.
Nowadays when I think of it, the most interesting part was that its price had not increased even once during these years. I started off at 2.50 Dirham and was still the same in the year 2000 also.
When I was leaving for India for my rest of my student life, one of my biggest worries was that I would be missing out on Shawarma. I might have even spent sleepless nights, getting bothered about a life without my favourite food.
But, it was not to be. When I landed in Kannur, what I could see was hotel after hotel that was serving Shawarma. For a moment, I felt relieved – until I tasted it for the first time in God’s own country. I do not remember even faintly which food joint it was, but it was the most horrible Shawarma that I had tasted in my whole life.
I decided not to give up. The coming days were my hunt to find the best one out of the lot. I tried it at all places – Caltex, Plaza Junction, and Fort Road it was all as good as junk. I was pretty disappointed. Wasting Rupees Twenty Five on such tasteless trash did not seem a good idea.
Slowly, I was losing the appetite for my favourite fast food. Until one evening when I was on one of my first jaunt to Payyambalam beach. It was nearly six in the evening and the October breeze was quite cool. On the way back, walking towards SN Park Road, I was quietly enjoying the environs, especially the classic looks of the houses and buildings there. I had walked all the way, up to Sangeetha Theatre. Once I reached there, I found a good number of cars and bikes parked around.
Since it was evening, I thought it was the crowd that was off to the theatre for the evening show, but later realised that it was all parked there for a different purpose. I saw a small fast food joint there, with an unusual label called Cita Pani, and a lot of crowd waiting there for my favourite Shawarma.
“Okay, so there’s once more of those appalling bistro” – I thought.
Nevertheless, I decided to give a try. This place was not on my regular route and had not been able to check on it till now. So what if all the previous tries were not good enough, it does not do any harm to try out one last time.
So I went in, placed my order and waited with bated breath for the serve.
The roll was placed on my table. I picked it up, tore open the cover paper wrapper and dug my teeth deep into the bread and meat. For a moment, I closed my eyes. I was trying to spot the tang – if it harmonized with any of the standards that were set for the taste I had loved before.
“Eureka!!!!!” – Well, I had not shouted it loud. But these were the words that had gone through my mind at that moment. It was the best Shawarma that I had tasted for months.
At last I had found a place that was good enough.
Since then, I became a regular at Cita Pani. I moved on from eating two at a time to sometimes three, upgraded from roll to plate, and was doubly happy when they came up with the innovative idea of Spicy Shawarma, which was not even seen in Middle Eastern countries in those days.
Over the next few years, when I started travelling a lot across South India, I managed to locate quite a lot of cafés that had Shawarma as their flagship merchandise, but there was not even a single one among them where the Shawarma could match the taste of the once that I had on that October evening.
George Bernard Shaw once quoted – “There is no sincerer love than the love of food”
All these years, there is still nothing that matches my love for this fast-food staple. And what makes me happier is that anywhere in the world, Shawarma is readily available in its own local varieties and brands, and has carved out its own niche in the hearts and minds of food lovers across the globe.
Thanks to globalisation!!!