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How to Make Shawarma

Chef Ana Sortun turns tender lamb, tangy toppings, and warm flatbread into a Middle Eastern street-food favorite that you can make at home.

Length: 15:59
Produced By: Sarah Breckenridge; videography by John Craig Ross and Michael Dobsevage; edited by Michael Dobsevage

Text and recipe by Ana Sortun

Everyone in Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and the rest of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean knows shawarma (shuh-wahr-mah)-it's a popular street food in those parts of the world and in a lot of North American cities, too. If you're unfamiliar with it, it's essentially a meaty flatbread sandwich, but that generic description doesn't do it justice.

The heart of shawarma is the meat-be it beef, lamb, goat, veal, turkey, chicken, or a combination-which is seasoned and stacked with slabs of fat on a vertical spit where it slowly rotates, roasting and self-basting, for hours until tender and juicy. It's then thinly sliced right o­ the spit and used to make a delightfully complex sandwich. All sorts of other goodies, including pickled vegetables, tahini, hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and even French fries may be layered with the meat inside the bread, which is always very thin and warm.

Get the recipe: Braised Lamb Shawarma

My own shawarma revelation occurred in a Lebanese deli in an Armenian neighborhood of Los Angeles, of all places. Needing to kill a few minutes between appointments, I popped into the hole-in-the-wall joint that my uncle swore made the best shawarma. I was skeptical-you should have seen the place-but he was right. Their chicken shawarma, topped with a garlic sauce, was truly incredible. But it wasn't the roasted chicken itself or the garlic sauce, even though that was tasty, that made it so unbelievably good. It was the perfect, restrained balance of chewy flatbread, sumptuous meat, and punchy sauce that did me in.

I returned to Sofra, my Middle Eastern bakery and café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, set on making a shawarma that was just as good or better. Shawarma isn't typically made at home-street vendors make such delicious versions that most people just buy and eat them on the go-but I was determined. Since my heart belongs to Turkish cuisine, where lamb reigns, I decided to use lamb shoulder chops. We don't have a vertical spit at Sofra, so I braised the lamb, flavoring it with white wine and aromatic seasonings. Post-braise, I broke the tender meat into chunks and tossed it with a bright, rich sauce made from the braising liquid, butter, sweet-and-sour pomegranate molasses, and lemon juice.

The true magic came when I layered the succulent lamb on warm homemade flatbread with lightly pickled cabbage and a creamy tahini yogurt sauce. Rolled up tight into a thin, burrito-like shawarma, it was just what I'd hoped to achieve-a perfect balance of flavors in every bite.

Here's how to make it for yourself. One taste, and you'll understand why so much of the world is in love with this sandwich.

1. Be gentle when tossing the lamb with its sauce to avoid breaking up the chunks that give the shawarma its great texture.

2. Restraint is the key in assembling shawarma; don't overwhelm the thin flatbread with too much lamb, cabbage, or tahini sauce.

3. Roll the shawarma tightly, pulling back on the edge of the bread after folding it over the filling and tucking the filling under with your fingertips, to create a slender, burrito-like wrap.

4. Toasting the shawarma on just one side heats it through and yields delicious texture: crisp on the toasted side, tender on the other side, and luscious on the inside.

For the Yufka (Turkish Flatbread) 

This easy-to-make flatbread is sturdy enough to hold the shawarma fillings but thin enough that it doesn't overwhelm them.

1. Roll the balls of yufka dough as thinly as you can, which should give you rounds that are about 9 inches in diameter and ­1/16-inch thick.

2. Cook the dough rounds until they look dry and are pale golden in spots, a minute or two on each side. The bread will be toasted again after the shawarma is assembled, so you don't want it to get too dark at this point.

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