As we are in the middle of Cincinnati Taco Week (through Oct. 14; see details here), let’s talk tacos — and shawarma. There’s a connection; we swear.
Tacos are predominantly considered Latin American cuisine, but after a bit of research, it can be postulated that we’re only shaving off the surface of the food’s history.
The invention of tacos al pastor in central Mexico is attributed to Middle Eastern immigrants who introduced shawarma to their Mexican hosts in the late 19th century. Shawarma, a word derived from çevirme — Turkish for “turning” — indicates the traditional spit-roasted method of cooking meat, which is then served inside a folded flatbread along with simple vegetables and spices. Substitute a corn tortilla for the flatbread and it sounds like you’ve got a taco, right?
When you look at the etymology of the various end dishes, the similarities are irrefutable. Even the name tacos al pastor is a nod to the lamb traditionally found in authentic shawarma, as al pastor equates to “in the style of the shepherd,” though the taco equivalent substitutes in pork and, “in the style of the swineherd” just doesn’t have the same appeal.
The Greek equivalent is the gyro, which means “to spin,” more a name based on the preparation method than the ingredients. You’ll often find gyros and shawarma served in the same restaurant, which signifies different meat and sauce options, but largely-similar sandwiches.
In 21st-century America, shawarma has adapted to the tastes of its new diners and to the availability of ingredients. Americans don’t eat as much lamb as they do in the Middle East, so chicken has become a popular staple for the sandwich. That’s why, in today’s food landscape, chicken is the default protein offered when one orders shawarma in most restaurants.
Shawarma, much like the taco, is a versatile food that need only follow basic requirements to identify as such. The breakdown of any given shawarma is: warm pita bread wrapped around lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and grilled chicken, all slathered in creamy garlic sauce typically made with Greek yogurt. The flavor profile of shawarma is largely thanks to the chicken marinade, which typically consist of garlic, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, olive oil and turmeric, though this will vary from chef to chef. Some like it hot, others like a more mild in spice.
Here is a list of four notable shawarma spots in Cincinnati:
Al-Madina Indian & Pakistani Market & Grill
6 W. Corry St., Corryville, 513-751-4676
Situated across the street from the Corryville Kroger, Al-Madina Indian & Pakistani Market & Grill boasts a humble yet comprehensive selection of Middle Eastern grocery staples alongside its open kitchen. The chicken shawarma is lauded by savvy students from nearby University of Cincinnati’s campus, where the sandwich is a natural takeaway selection for busy academics — although tables are available for those who want to dine in and appreciate the naturally calming effects of an environment that smells like grilled meat. Paired with the spicy garlic potato side dish, this chicken shawarma is a formidably flavorful meal. If you’re interested in learning more about cooking up dishes with similar flavor profiles to shawarma, Al-Madina is a good spot to frequent since many, if not all of the necessary ingredients can be purchased right next to your table.
4764 Cornell Road, Blue Ash, facebook.com/durumgrill
Frequented by office workers during lunch, Durum Grill offers quick meals made in front of you, large portions and fare like double cheeseburgers for less adventurous Midwesterners. The marinated chicken sits atop lettuce, onion, tomato, garlic sauce and pickles, which adds a bright tanginess that helps to cut though the creamy sauce. Grab a fork and some extra napkins, because it gets messy in the hands of an untrained diner, but you’ll want to savor every last morsel of Durum’s shawarma. Most diners should be satisfied with just a shawarma, but sometimes french fries are a good call, despite whatever your cardiologist keeps blabbering on about.
Raya Lebanese Restaurant
801 Elm St., Downtown, 513-421-0049
This spot is a natural decision for CityBeat staff since it is the closest to our office. The shawarma is incredibly flavorful, hitting on all the desirable trademarks of the sandwich. A bit more compact than other sandwiches in the city (while priced fairly and accordingly), Raya’s shawarma can be considered more in line with a taco in terms of portioning, while its peers border on the overstuffed burritos popular nowadays. So, that means you’ll have plenty of room to enjoy some lentil soup, a Greek salad or, if you’ve been good, some baklava. Of course, french fries are on the menu, along with buffalo wings, so there’s really no stopping you, is there?
Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill
341 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, facebook.com/cliftonmoroccancafe
Out of all the shawarma reviewed in this article, this restaurant serves the best. Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill finds true success with minute differences that distinguishes their sandwich in such a way that its greatness is undeniable...as long as you like olives. First, instead of wrapping flatbread around the contents, the kitchen opens up a pita and fills its pocket, which yields a much easier meal to handle without making a mess. Second, instead of pickled cucumber, found in every other sandwich listed above, pickled green olive is used in its place and infuses the spicy chicken with its earthy brininess.
The joy of diversity is easily found in cooking. There’s no better way to get to know your neighbors than to learn how they eat, what they value in cooking and where they frequent for a quick bite. Shawarma is the perfect gateway entrée to Middle Eastern cuisine, as it incorporates familiar ingredients with approachable spices. Who doesn’t love a sandwich?
All contrarian historical pedantry aside, while it may not be as widely recognized in our region for its influence on popular cuisine, shawarma deserves its place among your meals during Taco Week, and here’s hoping we’ll see more and more variety and representation in the festivities. Status quo dictates “Taco Tuesdays” but let’s begin to insist on “Shawarmondays.”