A shawarma roll
The city that gave the world the kathi roll has rediscovered fast-food bliss in the creamy and crunchy delights of the Lebanese shawarma roll.
Calcutta’s version of the shawarma — unlike the original semi-circular pocket form of the pita bread — is bread shaped like a roti and rolled around kebab shavings off the rotisserie. Throw in some garlic mayonnaise and you have the city’s alternative fast-food favourite ripe for the biting.
The good ol’ greasy kathi roll may still rule food street when it comes to a quickie snack, but the shawarma has become the choice of the health conscious fast-food freak (oxymorons aren’t taboo in the business of eating) who wants to have his roll and digest it too.
“Demand has grown in a short time. We serve paneer and chicken shawarma and are planning to introduce mutton,” said Debasish Dey, owner of Go Lebanese on Sarat Bose Road.
The eatery makes its own pita bread and uses its signature Lebanese sauce to enhance the flavour of the shawarma.
At Kookie Jar, which introduced the shawarma in 2005, demand has doubled since the time customers would walk in and ask: “What’s that?”
“We have been doing it for years. I would say since its inception, we have more than doubled our production of shawarmas. The crowd is now far more adventurous and people are travelling more, which means they are exposed to this kind of food and want to try it,” said Lovey, owner of Kookie Jar.
Such is the demand for the Lebanese delicacy that outlets offering only shawarma have sprung up, just like the kathi roll counters that dot many streets. Laila’z Kitchen, near the Audi showroom on AJC Bose Road, opened a month ago and is going the whole hog by planning to host a shawarma-eating competition soon.
“There are many who aren’t aware of what a shawarma is. But once they try it, they come back,” said Asif Iqbal, a partner in Laila’z Kitchen.
Firdaus Khan of Ar-Han-Thai is acknowledged as a master in the art of making shawarmas and has been running counters in the city ever since he shifted from Mumbai 10 years ago. He says foreigners who have sampled shawarmas abroad have come up to him to say his version is the best.
“On an average we sell around 200 pieces. On weekends, the number shoots up to over 300. Customers are ready to wait 30 minutes to lay their hands on a shawarma,” said 38-year-old Firdaus, who now heads the counter at Spencer’s in South City Mall.
Ar-Han-Thai has shawarma outlets at Forum, Axis and Avani Mall as well.
Sharad Dewan, area director of food production at The Park, sees the growing popularity of the shawarma as an extension of “the renewed interest in Lebanese food in general”.
At The Street, one of the signature eateries at The Park, the shawarma has been part of the menu since it opened in 2008. “We serve both the kathi roll and the shawarma at The Street. The idea is not to pitch it against the roll. We serve street food from across the world and the shawarma represents West Asia just as hot dogs and burgers represent America,” Dewan said.
While a vegetarian, egg, chicken, mutton or kathi roll costs between Rs 15 and Rs 40, the shawarma is a more expensive cousin. Ar-Han-Thai’s shawarma sells at Rs 110 each, Go Lebanese charges Rs 75 and Kookie Jar Rs 85. At The Street, a bite of shawarma comes for Rs 250 (plus taxes).
But shawarma regulars apparently don’t mind paying more, arguing that it is more nutritious than the kathi roll. “Kathi roll outlets should think twice before putting tiny pieces of chicken or mutton inside the rolls if they want to stave off competition from the shawarma,” said schoolteacher Mohua Lawrence.
Lovey of Kookie Jar vouches for the health benefits of the shawarma as a snack over the kathi roll. “The pita bread is made with zero fat and the dressing used in the wrap is yoghurt-based. This makes it healthier than the kathi roll,” she said.
Food critic and t2 columnist Nondon Bagchi called it a “welcome addition to Calcutta’s food map that should co-exist with the kathi roll”.
Those who swear by the kathi roll — and the list includes chef and t2 food columnist Shaun Kenworthy — insist that the shawarma can never replace the city’s old favourite.
“Flat bread with some spicy filling of lamb or chicken is a winner. It is true that shawarmas are becoming popular in the city but I don’t think anything can beat the Calcutta roll,” said chef Kenworthy.
At Nizam’s, which invented the kathi roll, the shawarma is a nonentity. “We have never heard about the shawarma, not even from our customers!” said Diptendu Roy, manager of the Esplanade branch that sells around 1,000 kathi rolls a day.
Additional reporting by Malini Banerjee