The Doctor Is in - for Shawarma Too

Dr Shakshuka, famous for his eponymous dish, has turned his talents to a staple Israeli takeaway.

"Dr. Shakshuka", famous among Israelis for perfecting the casserole of tomatoes, eggs and spices, has turned his culinary skills to another Israeli staple - shawarma. The doctor only serves the dish of succulent meat cooked slowly on a spit once a week - on Friday mornings - but despite the limited engagement, its popularity is ballooning.

The barrel-chested "doctor," born Yosef Benjamin Gabst but known to all as Bino, has a storied past with shawarma. His parents' restaurant, once located nearby in Jaffa, was one of the first to make the dish during Israel's infancy. At the age of 12, a Turkish donerci who was brought in by a rival eatery began to teach Bino the art of shawarma. The donerci returned to Turkey, but the taste of that meat dish stayed with Bino for 35 years.

Fast forward to a year ago. Bino was invited by chef Haim Cohen to make something, anything, as a guest on his TV show. Searching for a new treat to prepare, Bino acquired a small, stand-up rotisserie and decided to recreate the childhood recipe from memory. The experiment was a success, and Bino realized it was time to test the dish in his restaurant.

A few months later, after toiling in front of the flaming rotisserie every Friday, Bino stumbled across his old friend the donerci, Galib, on the streets of Jaffa. Bino felt fate played a role in their encounter, (it was "as if the messiah had come"), and it wasn't too long before Galib replaced Bino as head shawarma chef.

Galib working his magic with veal and lamb

Now Bino sits back and supervises the weekly operation, careful not to get in the way of Galib and his rule in the kitchen. "He saved me," says Bino. He pauses, then adds, "and I saved him."

While shawarama suffers from the stigma of fast food, Dr. Shakshoukah has transformed the everyday convenience into a much-anticipated delicacy. Gone are the greasy fries and the dizzying smorgasbord of chopped salads and breads. Instead he offers harisa, a spicy red Tripolitanian spread, matbuha, a sharp medley of eggplant, peppers and garlic, and a modest salad of onion and parsley.

Dr Shakshuka has his own take on the salads served with the meal

The work starts at 7 A.M. every Friday with the grinding of more than 50 kilograms of lamb in a workroom across from the restaurant kitchen. They carry the lamb into the kitchen, where workers mix the ground meat with coarsely-chopped onion and Bino adds his own blend of spices (Bino declined to reveal the contents of the mixture, but I could sense a strong undertone of cardamom). Once seasoned, the meat is packed into twenty or so thick, Frisbee-sized patties.

Galib walks in at about 7:30, at which point Bino and the other workers instinctively retreat from the preparation table. He mounts the first patty onto a standing skewer, pressing alternating flanks of veal steak and lamb fat on top of the the loose ground meat to give it shape and structure. Galib slides another patty atop the flanks, which he follows with another layer of veal and fat. He repeats the process until the skewer is nearly covered to the top. Then excess meat is trimmed from the sides until the shawarma is secure and ready for roasting.

Bino, left, knows Galib is the boss in the kitchen

The donerci prepares two such skewers a day, the first weighing in at about 20 kilos. The second, a 50 kilo behemoth, comes swaddled in plastic wrap to ensure the meat doesn't fall to pieces when it is carried from the kitchen. The lighter skewer is set to roast for the morning clientele at 8:30.

At 8:45, Bino cuts the first tender slivers of meat with a long, freshly-sharpened knife, a point of distinction from the crowd of other shawarma joints that use an electric meat cutter. He proffers half a pita smeared with a spoonful of harisa and topped with a sparse bit of onion and parsley. Strong in flavor but delicate in texture, a shawarma sandwich makes for a heavy breakfast. The sandwich is devoured in seconds.

The slow-roasted meat comes on a plate, or in the traditional pita

Minutes pass before Bino offers another stuffed pita, this one much harder to finish. Not 10 minutes later, he is offering a third, which is politely declined. Not taking it to heart, Bino asks Galib to prepare him a plate. He sits down to eat with a satisfied grin, as he lets his taste buds revel in the childhood dish that stuck with him for three decades.

Doctor Shakshuka (kosher)4 Beit Eshel St, Jaffa Tel: (03) 518 6560