Although not of Georgian origin, shaurma (შაურმა) holds a place in my heart as Georgia’s best street food, whether I’m shopping around Aghmashenebeli, Leselidze, or Rustaveli and looking for lunch, or simply out late at night a few beers deep and craving something filling to ward off intoxication.
Shaurma stands are ubiquitous in Tbilisi, second only to Georgian bakeries selling khatchapuri and lobiani. Typically a shaurma stand contains only a single spit (i.e. spinning wheel), which can be heated by gas or wood, a beverage fridge, and a sweaty cook who simply asks if you’d like everything and then follows up that question with “How many peppers?” I always reply: “Lots.” Shaurma is increasingly available in restaurants and cafés, but there’s no charm in eating shaurma inside a building. Shaurma is for the streets—you find a park bench or curbside, consume your glorious meat sandwich, and unsuccessfully avoid dripping ketchup on your shoes.
Every Georgian I’ve asked says that shaurma is from either Iran or Turkey, but it’s in fact of Levantine invention. Shaurma is the Georgian translation of the Arabic shawarma, which is in turn a translation of the Turkish çevirme, meaning turning. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to place an exact origin, since shaurma is so similar in preparation to Turkish döner kebap and Greek gyros. It’s no surprise that such food has gained popularity wherever Arab, Greek, or Turkish residents take root. Döner kebap, for example, is one of the top street foods in Berlin thanks to the large Turkish community.
So what is it, exactly? Shaurma is made by cutting a rotating chunk of meat with a long blade and collecting the shavings onto a piece of pita bread or lavash. Common accompaniments: cucumber, onion, tomato, lettuce, peppers. Shaurma is finished with a squirt of homemade ketchup-mayo with varying degrees of spiciness-savoriness. The standard-sized shaurma costs five lari. Many stands offer a three lari size which is never too much smaller. But despite the uniform pricing of shaurma across Tbilisi, there’s a wide quality range.
The secret to great shaurma is the personality of the meat. Forgettable shaurma involves ground meat—you can always tell by the uniform texture on the spit. High quality meat, on the other hand, is stacked with alternating strips of fat and appears more constructed. If you watch the meat turn next to the heat you should see it sweating as the fat is melted. That means you’re at the right place. The cooking process is also important: the longer the meat has been sweating on the spit, the juicier and tenderer the texture.
Other things can ruin shaurma, such as too much bread. I appreciate the attempt at providing more structure, which can prevent the sandwich from falling apart and dripping sauce, but it sacrifices the quantity of meat. Shaurma is also ruined by tangy sauce, something I’ve encountered at shaurma stands looking to cut against the sandwich’s spicier reputation.
Of course, shaurma, no matter how great, is still fast food. It’s unhealthy. It’s fattening. And if you eat an entire regular sized one your stomach may rebel over the next few hours. But that’s never stopped me from eating them in the past, and I doubt it’ll stop me in the future.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting hungry.