How to Make Shawarma Like an Israeli

Learn how to make the famously spiced lamb, two fresh salads on the side and tahini sauce for serving

Classic Israeli shawarma.
Vered Guttman

Israelis love serving their food in pita bread. From the classic falafel and shawarma, to the more unique sabich, an Iraqi inspired pita filled with fried eggplant, hard boiled egg and tahini; schnitzel in pita, an Israeli fusion of the Viennese classic in a pita bread with hummus and French fries; shakshuka with hummus in pita is another weirdly-sounding, super-messy yet so delicious creation; and the late additions of roasted cauliflower with sour cream and green onion or the steak and egg from the everything-in-pita fast food joints of celebrity chef Eyal Shani (arriving soon to N.Y.C., rumors say). 

The shawarma arrived to the levant via the Ottoman Empire. Fire-roasted lamb in flat bread was served in the Middle East for thousands of years, and Turks rotated meat over fire on a horizontal spit, but the vertical spit, known in Turkey as doner kebab, was invented only in the 19th century in Turkey.

Don’t underestimate this genius invention. The vertical spit allows easy roasting of sliced meat and ensures that the drippings of all the fat end up back in the meat itself instead of into the fire source. Doner kebab successfully spread around the world, from the Greek gyro, to the Arab shawarma and the Mexican taco al pastor, that was brought there by Lebanese immigrants.

Israelis learned the art of the shawarma from the Palestinians, but now serve with a few adaptations. Israeli shawarma is spiced, much like the Arab shawarma, with any combination cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika and more. For reasons of cost and flavor, Israelis mostly make shawarma out of dark turkey meat layered with lamb fat. More specifically, Israeli shawarma restaurants swear by dark meat of a female turkey, whose meat is more tender than the male’s. Unlike some of the Turkish/Greek/Arab versions, Israelis don’t serve shawarma with yogurt sauce, for kashrut reasons, and use only tahini sauce. 

As for salads in the pita, much like the Israeli falafel, shawarma is served with a huge selection of salads from around the globe: Moroccan carrot salad, Arab chopped vegetable salad and onion in sumac, Iraqi pickled mango sauce, German sauerkraut, yemenite spicy schug and French fries. Some smart shop owners put the French fries at the bottom of the shawarma spit to absorb all the fat and juices. 

Even without that last touch, shawarma is super tasty, and here is one way for making it at home.

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the lamb

½ teaspoon coriander
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Pinch nutmeg
Pinch crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons salt
4 lb. bone in lamb shoulder or lamb neck or both
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the red onion-sumac salad

½ red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sumac
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

For the spicy Israeli salad

2 tomatoes, diced
4 Persian cucumbers, diced
1 Serrano pepper, chopped (seeded, if you prefer less hot)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil Salt to taste

For the tahini sauce

1/3 cup cold water
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup tahini paste
Salt to taste

For serving

4 pita breads
Hummus
Amba* (see note below)
Sliced Israeli pickles

Directions

To make the lamb, turn oven to 250 degrees. Mix all spices and salt in a medium bowl. Pat meat dry with paper towels and dip in spices to coat on both sides. Heat olive oil in an oven-proof Dutch oven over medium-high heat and sear lamb until nicely brown, about 2 minutes per side. You may need to do it in a couple of batches. Put all the lamb back in the Dutch oven, add a cup of water, bring to boil and remove from heat. Cover Dutch oven and transfer to oven for 3 hours, or until meat is very tender. Let lamb cool and remove meat from bones, discard the bones. You can do this step up to two days in advance and keep the meat in the fridge in the meantime.

To make the red onion-sumac salad mix all the ingredients.

To make the spicy Israeli salad mix all the ingredients.

To make the tahini, whisk water, lemon juice and tahini in a large bowl until smooth and creamy. Add more water if you want to make it thinner, and more tahini if you prefer the sauce thicker. If the raw tahini in the jar has hardened and is hard to whisk by hand, you can use a blender or a food processor to prepare the sauce. Add salt to taste.

When ready to serve, Slice lamb thinly and reheat in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Spread hummus in each pita bread, add layers of lamb, spicy salad and red onion-sumac salad, tahini and amba, and repeat the layers twice in each pita. Top with Israeli pickles. Serve immediately.

*Amba is a Jewish Iraqi pickled mango sauce that originated from India. It is not necessary for serving shawarma, but Amba adds a unique flavor that is loved by many in Israel and that is why you’ll find it in most shawarma and falafel shops in the country. Amba is available at some Israeli supermarkets.