Chef Harel Zakaim, which some readers may know from his vegan restaurant “Zakaim” is back with a vengeance with his new shawarma eatery in Tel Aviv. It’s completely vegan, bent on changing the rules of the game regarding everything we knew about vegetarian-vegan shawarmas.
What’s all the fuss about? Well, after six months of development along with two partners, the owners of vegan pizzeria Green Cat and vegan hamburger joint Rainbow, a new shawarma eatery is scheduled to open with fanfare this week. The new place, called Sultana, will be a shawarma eatery for all intents and purposes, and this shawarma will have all the usual components – simple salads, tahini sauce dripping out of the pita bread, home-made pickled vegetables and amba, a tangy mango pickle condiment brought over from the Hatikvah market. Only this shawarma is totally vegan, with no concerns about animals suffering in its preparation. “This is the original shawarma experience, only 100 percent vegan,” Zakaim says.
He explains that this shawarma is not like the now-defunct vegetarian one sold on King George Street. All that remains of that one can be found at the Goodness Diner, a vegan restaurant on the same street.
Shawarma as shawarma should be, only vegan
The first thing noted by Zakaim, in vouching for his new place, is the machines and décor. “We’ve set up a shawarma machine like in any other similar location; in fact we’ve brought in two huge ones which we bought from a guy named Subhi who makes stainless steel – he made them specially for us,” he says excitedly, in a tone disclosing his pride and thrill at breaking new ground. “As far as I know this is going to be the first vegan shawarma made out of seitan (a meat substitute made of gluten),” he adds, referring to the recipe he’s developed. Most of it will be made out of mushrooms, though. “If Noma, one of the best restaurants in the world, can make shawarma entirely out of root vegetables, as it’s done recently, then I believe the public here is ready for a shawarma made of vegetables. But ours is more amazing” he says, referring to the two—Michelin—star Danish restaurant, ranked as best in the world four times in a row by Restaurant magazine.
In fact, Zakaim decided to develop a shawarma eatery while still operating the Zakaim restaurant. He placed a shawarma machine in the kitchen of that restaurant, hanging forest mushrooms on it. He cut out pieces and served them in pita. “The reactions were great. But one day the machine stopped working so well, so instead of the electric machine I scattered some hot coals there and it turned out significantly better. When it completely broke down I brought in a barbecue grill and started using regular skewers instead of the special shawarma ones. Since then I’ve been dreaming about making shawarma,” he reconstructs the aspirations that led to his present venture, which includes the new designated machine.
It’s not fast food
Although it is shawarma, Zakaim insists it’s not fast food. Mounting it on the machine takes two hours, “because of the mushrooms”, he clarifies. “We use forest mushrooms that have a texture that is reminiscent of chicken or spring chicken, but they are very delicate when handling and often fall apart. We therefore have to place each mushroom carefully in exactly the right place, otherwise it won’t stick to the skewer.” In that sense, this eatery is more of a slow food joint, at least in the preparation stage. “We’re fast in serving it but light-years distant in preparing it,” he says laughingly.
Zakaim works with Ofer, the famed tahini importer from the Hatikvah market, who also makes his own amazing amba, which includes chunks of mango.” All these ingredients get stuffed into Angel Bakery pita bread, which will lie in a steamed pot to keep it relatively soft and fluffy. Further freshness and piquant flavors will be provided by garden cress leaves, “but since these are seasonal they’ll be replaced by basil – if not, we’ll find some other interesting solution,” promises Zakaim.
In addition, together with or alongside the shawarma, Sultana will offer patrons vegan kebab, cigars filled with mushrooms, and, at some later point, vegan tzatziki and labneh cheese. The latter is referred to by Zakaim as “amazing, unlike any other. I’m proud of it almost as much as I’m proud of the shawarma.” No less important – there is no worry here about mixing meat and dairy so that those observing kashrut laws will be able to enjoy Turkish-style shawarma. For those who remember Zakaim’s fries, eaten with one’s hands, they’ll be there too, served with salt and white Persian lemon juice and home-made vegan mayonnaise.
Prices, incidentally, are: 35 shekels for a shawarma or kebab in a pita; 12 shekels for a mushroom-filled cigar; 17 shekels for fries.
To wash things down Zakaim will offer a Persian carbonated drink called sekanjabeen, a concentrate he calls “Persian raspberry juice”. It’s based on vinegar, sugar and mint leaves, traditionally imbibed at festivities in Iran and when celebrating good times. It’s often drunk by young children as well. “Adults drink it on holidays,” he says. “When I was little my father’s aunt would give me this amazing drink, and to me it seems the most appropriate in this heat.” Anyone wanting to forget things can also add some arak, vodka or gin to the carbonated drink ad let it go straight to one’s head.
Sultana, vegan shawarma, Ibn Gabirol 52, Tel Aviv. Hours of operation: Sunday-Thursday, 12 P.M. - midnight. Friday: 12 P.M. to 4 P.M.