Shawarma is among the street foods of the eastern and southern Mediterranean that are typical of less-complicated menu items served at U.S. quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. Like much of the food from that region, it is rooted in history and inspired by culture.
“The food is tied together because the countries from Turkey to North Africa have a nomadic background, which makes for simpler food,” Briwa says. “You don’t hop on a camel and race across the desert and then set up a kitchen. Simplicity is important.”
Lamb, goat, and chicken became the meat of choice for those people who didn’t have access to pasture land. For nomads, “the easiest way to move food was to let it walk in front of them,” the chef says. The meat was then roasted on a stick or spit.
Similarly, flatbread and pitas became logical choices for those who lived in harsh environments where fuel and ovens were not available. It was easy to mix up a quick dough and cook it on a griddle or stone or bury it in the sand covered by a fire.
Most shawarma sandwiches or wraps at limited-service restaurants cost $5–$6, while platters with sides are a couple dollars more. The sides range from about $2 to $3 each.
Chicken seems the favorite dish at most Mediterranean concepts, although the falafel sandwich has become “wildly popular” at Roti, Post says.
Falafel refers to deep fried balls or patties of chickpeas or fava beans, often served in a pita or flatbread with vegetables and toppings, such as a sesame seed paste called tahini. The dish is believed to have originated in Egypt and is found across the Levant.
At Maoz Vegetarian, falafel is available in a pita sandwich, a salad, or as a side item. Several toppings, eight sauces, and a salad bar help fill the pita pockets. The combo deals include choices of Mediterranean favorites, such as hummus and baba ghanoush.
“Our menu is very simple,” says Aviv Schwietzer, director of operators for the 13 U.S. units of Maoz, which began in The Netherlands in 1991. “All of our food, each and every salad, is made fresh every morning.”
The chain’s falafel is made with chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, which are soaked every night and then ground with parsley, cilantro, and various spices.
“We buy the spice seeds and grind them ourselves,” he says. “We package it and send it to our units” in the New York–Washington corridor; Boca Raton, Florida; and Berkeley, California.
The importance of chickpeas to Mediterranean food can be found in the names of some of its restaurants, including ChickPita Fresh and Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.
In addition to falafel, hummus is also made with the legume.
Hummus may be the fastest-growing Mediterranean food in the U.S. It is made with cooked and mashed chickpeas, which are typically blended with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and tahini or other spices.
When Roti began in 2007, Post says, “we’d go to Whole Foods and there was one brand name of hummus and three flavors. Now, you’ll find three brands and 23 flavors.”
Many grocers now carry packaged hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, pitas, and other items from the Levant and North Africa.
“This stuff is all becoming mainstream. And it’s healthy and part of a whole change going on in the American diet,” Post says.
Even some more general fast-casual chains feature hummus, including the Birmingham, Alabama–based Zoe’s Kitchen, which has 45 units in 12 Southern and Southwestern states.
ChickPita, based in Los Angeles, offers six types of hummus, including a traditional recipe, but also varieties such as avocado, “because this is California, after all,” says Timatyos, who previously lived in Chicago and whose father is Lebanese.
Garbanzo serves one type of hummus but is looking to add flavored varieties.
“Hummus today may be the next guacamole,” Mor says. “Once it became popular, you began to have some chefs playing with it, seeing what they can do.”
The spices used in the foods of the eastern and southern Mediterranean are not as hot as those from India and other countries to the east, but they are still very flavorful, Technomic’s Tristano says. Increasingly, they are becoming common in America.
“Some of the more popular restaurants may move slowly” to incorporate some unusual spices, he says. “There is an opportunity for spicier and bolder flavors, but they also want to make it appeal to a wider audience.”
Still, it’s not like former efforts to homogenize ethnic foods.