The city of shawarma: A look at Ottawa’s unique food culture

It’s dinnertime in Ottawa and once again you don’t have the time or the ability to cook up a meal. Looks like it’s take-out again, but greasy fast food isn’t cutting it anymore, and your body sure isn’t taking it well either.  What is your choice for the night? Chances are, you’re going to end up eating shawarma.

Shawarma has Turkish origins and comes from the word “turning,” said Karim Shakim, assistant manager at the shawarma outlet 3 Brothers.

Since then, Shakim said shawarma has spread all across Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

Shawarma is a pita sandwich traditionally filled with shaved meat, vegetables, and tahini sauce, said Sammy Karkache, a native of Lebanon who has worked in the Ottawa food industry for the last 45 years. While lamb is traditionally used as the meat, Karkache said most Canadian outlets tend to use beef or chicken because it’s a healthier, more accessible alternative. The meat itself is marinated in garlic, salt, pepper, and cardamom, with no preservatives used besides salt.

Tahini is a paste made of sesame, lemon juice, oil and garlic.

“Shawarma started out basically as the poor man’s meal in some ways or another because it’s a sandwich,” Karkache said. “Shawarma is a very popular sandwich back home.”

Shawarma in Ottawa

Since its initial genesis, the shawarma business has crossed significant geographical borders and taken over the Ottawa food industry, with 186 outlets showing up on a Google Maps search of the city. Karkache said he believes the shawarma craze got picked up in the last 10-15 years in Ottawa, and has made for an increase in the number of shawarma locations, as well as increased competition.

He accredited the growing number of shawarma establishments to the general ease of setting up the business.

“It’s an easier business to open,” he said. “All it is, is a counter you put in the back . . . a salad table at the front . . . and in the back you have two machines turning the meat, one for the beef, one for the chicken.”

But to compete in the business, Karkache said customer service is key to gaining clientele. “You gotta care about your customers, care about what you give them,” he said. “Your customer loyalty is big, crucial.”

Best in Canada?

Ottawa might be full of shawarma, but competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Karkache said. He said the quantity of shops has in fact increased the quality of the shawarma in Canada’s capital.

“Everything’s getting better. Food’s getting a little bit better in some ways because . . . [the] consumer’s getting smarter, so they’re not buying a bad product,” he said.

But Karkache said he still thinks Ottawa has some catching up to do until it can become known as the best in the country. Contrary to popular belief, he said Montreal is really the shawarma capital of Canada.

“The Eastern community is bigger there,  but Ottawa’s getting there, it’s coming,” he said.

Robin Azzi, manager of 3 Brothers, located in the Byward Market, disagreed.  He said he thinks Ottawa does indeed  have the best shawarma selection in the country.

“Since I’ve been here we get a lot of people from Toronto, Kingston, all these different areas,” he said.

“We’ve gotten other customers saying there are shawarma places [there], but they just aren’t done the same.”

The Canadian Flavour

Some shawarma places have combined Lebanese and Canadian food traditions to produce  a unique hybrid.

(Photo by Amy Yee)

(Photo by Amy Yee)

“If you think about it, poutines are pretty popular in Ottawa, shawarmas are pretty popular in Ottawa, so shawarma and poutine are like two of the most popular things in Ottawa,” Azzi said.

He said the combination has done well with customers at 3 Brothers and is a late-night favourite. It’s also something that makes the restaurant unique and sets them apart from the other shawarma outlets, he said.

“If you look at the other shawarma places in Ottawa, no one actually really does it. So we were the first ones to actually get it going,” he said. “Everybody’s gonna do their own thing, no matter what. If you think about it, there’s like five places in the vicinity here, and if everybody was doing the same thing, it wouldn’t work.”

And Azzi is right, the area of what he said is a two-kilometre radius around Rideau and Dalhousie Street is filled with a massive selection of shawarma restaurants within short walking distances from each other.

Established four years ago, 3 Brothers only has one location, but Azzi said the owners are looking to expand in the future.

Convenience and Health

(Photo by Amy Yee)

(Photo by Amy Yee)

Just down the road, only  about a five-minute walk from 3 Brothers, lies Shawarma Palace,  an outlet that’s been in operation in the city since 1996. Since its establishment, the restaurant has been following the same practice, said owner Hanadi Dawi.

Some of the appeal of   shawarma comes from its flexibility—it caters to many different tastes.

Dawi said the preferences of each customer varies drastically, from three different sauces, to rice, to just plain hummus.

Shawarma Palace also serves vegetarian shawarmas, she said.

Dawi said  shawarma is popular because it’s a healthy alternative to other unhealthy fast foods. Azzi and Shakim agreed.

“You go to Subway, you see when they put bacon on the sandwich it’s like pre-cooked bacon,” Azzi said. “When they take the chicken out of the bag it’s already precooked . . . everything’s pre-done”.

Shawarma restaurants are different, Shakim said. “You see, everything is natural. We don’t use any other artificial [flavouring], any food colour, anything,” he said.

Word of Mouth

With their growing success, Shawarma Palace recently opened another spot on Bank Street. Dawi said their popularity didn’t grow from any advertising, but rather from people being drawn back to the large portion sizes served at the restaurant.

In regards to the popularity of shawarma as a whole in Ottawa, Karkache accredited word of mouth to its rapid growth and promotion. People are game for anything that’s new, he said, and if they like it, they’ll come back and bring their friends to try it.

With shawarma, he said the word spread fast.

Fouad Barakad, co-owner of Libnan Bakery and Shawarma, said his family first opened their business in 2007 with the intent to provide their service for a specific demographic.

“The area had lots of Mediterranean people . . . so we decided to open a  business for Mediterranean people so they could still think about their food and back home,” he said.

Since then, Barakad said the outlet has grown to attract customers from every different culture  and ethnicity in the neighbourhood.

“Like everything, the beginning is hard . . . you have to adjust so people know you, but then after that . . . it gets better and better,” he said. “Now [customers come] from everywhere . . . Customers from all the cultures in Canada because most of the people now know the Mediterranean food and business.”

Bakarad said the restaurant is a family affair, with members of the family handling the long days themselves. Since it’s not only a shawarma restaurant, but also a bakery selling an assortment of pies and other goods, Barakad said the work day often starts at 4 a.m. with preparations.  The shop  is open for business from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Shawarma on campus

Have a craving to try your own bite of the succulent and tasty shawarma?

Carleton’s campus is home to its own shawarma outlet. Chef Shawarma, located in the Unicentre’s food court, is the on-site stop for students looking to have a taste of the Middle Eastern dish.

But students agree the university’s restaurant doesn’t have the same standards as other Ottawa restaurants.

Huma Muhammadi, a second-year student, said she prefers the shawarma outlet located at Billings Bridge Mall, but she resorts to the campus one because of its convenience and the lack of choice for halal meals in the food court.

Norm Fong, a Carleton PhD student, said he would still choose the campus shawarma over the food at Subway, because of its fresher ingredients.

“You still get real pieces of meat instead of  . . . deli meats,” he said. “The Subway, their chicken breast is like microwaved whatever . . . and the shawarma is still in a rotisserie, so it’s still actually good quality.”

Fong agreed with Muhammadi that campus shawarma is not his favourite.

“It’s easily the worst in Ottawa,” he admitted. “But it’s still okay because it’s shawarma.”