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Slicing into shawarma on a spit.
Slicing into the spit at Shatta and Toum.
Michaël Protin

The Best Shawarma in London

Whether the mesmerising slow-cooking on a vertical spit, or the adapted dish of spiced, grilled meats in a wrap with technicolour salads and sauces

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Slicing into the spit at Shatta and Toum.
| Michaël Protin

The Arabic term shawarma is derived from the Turkish word çevirme, meaning “something that revolves/to turn.” Referring to the invention of the vertical rotisserie in parts of Turkey from at least the 18th century, versions of meat cooked in this way arose over many centuries in the culinary culture of Ottoman Turkey, to which many ethnic groups contributed. The Turkish döner, Greek gyros, and Mexican al pastor (brought to Mexico City by Lebanese migrants), as well as the Levantine shawarma, all have roots in the Ottoman Empire.

In the Levant, the emphasis is on the spice marinade, and a wide range of spices is used, varying through cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, fenugreek, cardamom, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, paprika, and turmeric; and less commonly sumac, mace, mastic, and star anise. In Turkey, the spicing tends to be more minimal — and may even just consist of grated onions — but is likely to include some urfa biber or pul biber, as well as black pepper and cumin. In Greece, the marinade often includes more dried herbs like oregano, as well as paprika and cumin.

In addition to seasoning, a good shawarma requires the use of fatty as well as lean cuts of meat, and ideally, for lamb, the layering of tail fat in each piece. Even more important is the manner of building the meat tower to ensure the correct level of heat hits the different areas of the assemblage as it rotates on the vertical spit.

While in Western cities, shawarma was brought by migrants from the Levant, and has become a favourite late-night snack shaved from vertical spits, in parts of North and West Africa, it has been reinterpreted and adapted according to available cooking technologies and spices. This means that shawarma may no longer refer to the process of slow-cooking on a vertical spit at all, and may simply refer to a dish of spiced, grilled meats in a wrap with some kind of sauce.

In London, this logic has further transpired, and there are many playful reconstructions of the original concept available (some even without meat!) The variety of breads used to wrap up the goods, too, are more abundant than with falafel. In short, London has so much more to offer than the ubiquitous nocturnal combination of pre-minced and greasy meat: here’s where to find the most serious shawarma in the capital.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Al Enam

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At Park Royal’s legendary Iraqi institution, both lamb and chicken shawarma options are available to order as part of their signature sandwich, or alternatively as a plate. In the sandwich, a brioche-esque roll of bread surrounds the charred meat, and its accompaniments of freshly chopped salad, Iraqi pickles, and tahini. Amba can be added on request. As a plate, it is served on a fluffy tanoor bread which soaks up the juices without losing its enticing doughy texture, and can be ordered with fresh salad, rice or chips. There is also an option to have the lamb shawarma with tomatoey red rice.

The Best Broasted

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It is best to arrive at this Willesden Green Syrian joint peckish at the very least, but ideally ravenous. Chicken and lamb shawarma can be ordered as a wrap, but that would mean missing out on ordering them as a plate with salad, pickles, and potatoes. The flavour in both meats is outstanding, with the sweet cinnamon kick in the lamb particularly appealing. Ordered this way, the meat comes two ways. It is stuffed with velvety toum into a khobez — cut into three or four pieces — that has been seared in the excess fat dripping from the vertical spit; or laid on slices of the same flatbread, lathered with a spicier red toum, as well as some pomegranate molasses and black and white sesame seeds. Arguably outshining the shawarma are the potatoes: Flat and oval, they are somewhere between a crisp and a chip, and sprinkled on top of them is a secret spice mix that is addictively sapid. Do not forget to ask for fiery, fermented shatta — it’s fiery and complex and only adds another layer to the flavour ensemble in the mouth. And, probably order the broasted chicken, which is surely one of the best fried chicken experiences available in London.

Taza Takeaway Kebab House

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At just £5 for a small shawarma, Taza offers good bang for your buck. Another bonus is that it’s open till 1 a.m. The choice of bread is pita, and whilst both the chicken and shawarma could be a little more moist, they have a satisfying charred crispiness. For that reason, a mix of both is worth opting for. Inside, there’s tahini, toum, a spicy tomato and chilli sauce, raw onions, and shredded cabbage and carrot salad. There are kabis kar (pickled green chill) and fresh mint on the side that are worth adding for zip and freshness respectively. Once the sandwich is assembled, it is then toasted for extra crunch, which is a nice touch.        

Abu Afif

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Another good option if on the hunt for shawarma on Edgware Road. Lamb is the one to go for here, which is piquant and enticingly singed. Better still, in addition to ordering it in a wrap, diners can order it in a rhombus-shaped, crusty samoun, or a doughier, thicker tanoor baked in a clay oven. It comes with warm tomatoes that sit underneath the spit, salad, and optional sauces. The key here is to avoid everything but the tahini sauce, as the heavy spicing of the meat calls for a simple contrast. A word of warning for chilli lovers: don’t be tempted by the chilli sauce, as it tastes generic, sweet and detracts from an otherwise great meat-in-bread experience.

Cafe Helen

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Edgware Road offers a copious, even overwhelming amount of places to eat Lebanese shawarma, but out of all of them, Cafe Helen is the best bet. Both the chicken and lamb are more subtly spiced than Ranoush Juice or other Lebanese spots, and the flavour is still giving. All the components of the sandwich are compactly packed into a khobez wrap: the pickled cucumbers are punchy; the amounts of tahini and toum well-balanced — and the chilli sauce offers a pleasingly effervescent kick.

In this vegetarian alternative, unlike at Noma, the celeriac is not moulded around a spit, but rather grilled till it is at once succulent and charcoaled. Served inside a “wild farmed” pita with plenty of wholesome whole grain flavour, it is accompanied by pickled celeriac; creme fraiche; bkeila (a Tunisian-Jewish condiment of spinach cooked down for hours in oil); crispy onions, and a side serving of chilli-laced fermented tomato for an extra layer of flavour. At £17 for a small plate, it is not exactly a generous portion, but it is a complex, clever, and subtle dish.

Hiba Street Food

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The silky hummus and verdant falafel are superior to the shawarma here, but the lamb shawarma wrap is still worth ordering. The meat itself could be more charred but it is pretty well-cooked, and the spicing has a sweet touch. The toasting on the wrap is well judged too. What’s more is that the chefs endeavour to pair the meats with the ingredients that suit them best, as is done in Palestinian cuisine. Thus, whilst the chicken comes with toum, the lamb comes with tahini sauce, tomato, raw onion, and tangy pickles. The shatta is tangy and sour, with the heat almost background, and is worth ordering on the side for the occasional dip. Expect startlingly rapid service.

Shatta and Toum

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As the main event at Berenjak’s new mezze medley joint in Arcade Hall, this is as gloriously flavourful and fatty as shawarma gets. Experimenting with separate chicken and lamb shawarmas, the chefs eventually opted for one shawarma option with a 75 to 25 percent ratio of lamb to chicken. As the spit turns, a mixture of lamb fat, schmaltz and butter is continually basted on the meat, which has been spiced with kashmiri chilli, black pepper, turmeric and saffron. Diners can order the shawarma in a khobez wrap with hummus, toum, tomato, red onion, salted cucumber, parsley, or opt for a portion of hummus adorned with shawarma and confit garlic and tomato as part of a broader mezze selection.

Shawarma Bar

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At Berber and Q’s Exmouth Market venue, there is lamb for the carnivores, and cauliflower for the veggies. Either can be ordered in a classic pita, or as a rice bowl or plate. The restaurant recommends ordering a plate — which means more toppings — for the full experience of mixing, matching, and constructing the ideal bite. The lamb itself is tender enough, really flavoursome, with a satisfying char on the outside.  The charred fluffy bread gets slightly wetter than one might hope underneath the meat, but not too wet to get to work on building the goods. All the fillings have their place: velvety tahini sauce; smokey, spicy slightly and sweet harissa; fresh undressed herbs with shredded red cabbage; sumac-dressed onions; tangy hot green peppers; and then the highlights: Sweet, turmeric pickled cucumbers with a perfectly conceived level of delicate tang; and cumin salt which really ties the whole experience together. Cauliflower shawarma can be ordered as a side. Here it isn’t really shawarma, but for the smokiness on the outside which somewhat resembles the experience of eating shawarma. Pine nuts, and pomegranate and dried rose petals as toppings do make it a deliciously aromatic thing to eat, however, even if a little more tahini sauce underneath would be welcome.

Palmyra’s Kitchen

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If looking for Lebanese food in Northeast London, this is the spot, and the shawarma is good, evidenced by the well-layered spits of chicken and lamb, topped with a surface of fat, and crowned with lemons. Diners can order a mixed plate with some very tasty vermicelli rice for £14, but the wrap — at £6.75 for mixed, £6.49 for lamb, or £6.20 for chicken — is better value-for-money, and offers a fuller shawarma experience. Both the lamb and chicken are crisp on the outside and moist enough on the inside, speckled with some of their spices: ginger and cumin for the chicken; cinnamon and cumin for the lamb. The toum is rich and appropriately garlicky, and the chilli sauce mild but flavoursome. The winning accompaniment here is the dill-pickled cucumber, which has a curious, intricate flavour. If opting to dine in for a full meal, add on the pomegranate-laced chicken livers, which are not to be missed.

Holy Pitta

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One of the better food joints on Upper Street, the gyros/yeeros (the menu makes space for both spellings) is decent. On a plate, diners can order pork or chicken, which comes with tzatziki, tomatoes, onions and hand-cut fries. The wrap options are chicken or a “holy” mix of both, placed inside a soft, slightly golden-coloured pita, with a tangy feta sauce, onion, lettuce and fries. The main difference with a typical shawarma here (in addition to the type of meat and shape and appearance of the bread) is the welcome contrast provided by the yoghurt or cheese.

Gökyüzü Restaurant

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If wanting to understand how good the Turkish döner really can be, go to this Green Lanes institution. Both the chicken and lamb rotating skewers are of course produced from whole pieces of meat that are configured on the spit, not pre-minced mixes. Both are delicious and as “succulent” and “tongue-bursting” as their menu boasts, as is the thicker-grained vermicelli rice that accompanies them. Like everything at Gökyüzü, the quality of the cooking and ingredients shine through.

Yemanes

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The owners of this much-loved Peckham street stand put their own Algerian spin on the shawarma wrap. There’s a choice of chicken or lamb, but the latter is the winner. It isn’t cooked on a spit, but rather on a plancha, before being rolled up in a Yemanes flatbread (also cooked on a plancha) with a red kidney bean spread; fresh pepper hummus; stewed lentils; feta and olive oil cream; and chilli sauce. It may feel a little idiosyncratic, but it is a very satisfying wrap with the right level of spicing, heat and contrast. Watching the bread being rolled out and cooked moments before eating it certainly adds to the experience.

Alhaji SUYA Peckham

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In the late 19th century, Lebanese migrants arrived in Lagos, and there is now a population of Lebanese Nigerians in the tens of thousands. Nigeria’s version of shawarma, a popular dish across the country, however, does not require meat from a rotating spit, and refers mainly to the idea of grilled, spiced meat wrapped inside a flatbread. It is the same meat that is used in suya — fatty and charred, but more thinly sliced. At Alhaji Suya, diners can choose tozo (fatty beef), beef, lamb, or chicken, and as in the Levant, lamb works well. Accompanying it are saveloy-esque chicken hot dogs (a nostalgic surprise); fresh shredded red cabbage; a luscious sauce made from mayonnaise, tomato and garlic; and a sprinkling of fiery yaji to cut through the sweetness. A trip without tasting the tozo suya would be a little foolish, so come very hungry!

La Chingada Mexican Food

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In his chapter of Making Levantine Cuisine, food scholar Harry Eli Kashdan argues that al pastor must be included in the category from the perspective of culinary history, because it is derived from the “signature Levantine culinary innovation of the vertical spit.” Whilst Kashdan also recognises that this may not be the case from the perspective of the consumer — particularly due to the use of pork instead of halal meats — the way the category of shawarma breaks down in London would make it amiss to omit this dish brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants; at least al pastor meat is still carved from a spit. But to burrito or to taco? Perhaps the burrito is more similar to the shawarma wrap in its capacity to hold everything in one white flour tortilla (which isn’t so far from the khobez in texture and weight), but with the addition of rice, the meat /spice/sauce contrast gets buried. The corn taco is a thoroughly different bread flavour-wise, but with the palpable sear on the meat, the parallel of charred smokiness and heavy spice with a creamy jalapeno sauce and raw onion makes for an experience not a million miles away. The slice of pineapple’s contribution to the profound abundance of flavour might take it one step further away from its ancestor, but shawarma should be proud to call the al pastor taco at La Chingada its descendant.

Al Enam

At Park Royal’s legendary Iraqi institution, both lamb and chicken shawarma options are available to order as part of their signature sandwich, or alternatively as a plate. In the sandwich, a brioche-esque roll of bread surrounds the charred meat, and its accompaniments of freshly chopped salad, Iraqi pickles, and tahini. Amba can be added on request. As a plate, it is served on a fluffy tanoor bread which soaks up the juices without losing its enticing doughy texture, and can be ordered with fresh salad, rice or chips. There is also an option to have the lamb shawarma with tomatoey red rice.

The Best Broasted

It is best to arrive at this Willesden Green Syrian joint peckish at the very least, but ideally ravenous. Chicken and lamb shawarma can be ordered as a wrap, but that would mean missing out on ordering them as a plate with salad, pickles, and potatoes. The flavour in both meats is outstanding, with the sweet cinnamon kick in the lamb particularly appealing. Ordered this way, the meat comes two ways. It is stuffed with velvety toum into a khobez — cut into three or four pieces — that has been seared in the excess fat dripping from the vertical spit; or laid on slices of the same flatbread, lathered with a spicier red toum, as well as some pomegranate molasses and black and white sesame seeds. Arguably outshining the shawarma are the potatoes: Flat and oval, they are somewhere between a crisp and a chip, and sprinkled on top of them is a secret spice mix that is addictively sapid. Do not forget to ask for fiery, fermented shatta — it’s fiery and complex and only adds another layer to the flavour ensemble in the mouth. And, probably order the broasted chicken, which is surely one of the best fried chicken experiences available in London.

Taza Takeaway Kebab House

At just £5 for a small shawarma, Taza offers good bang for your buck. Another bonus is that it’s open till 1 a.m. The choice of bread is pita, and whilst both the chicken and shawarma could be a little more moist, they have a satisfying charred crispiness. For that reason, a mix of both is worth opting for. Inside, there’s tahini, toum, a spicy tomato and chilli sauce, raw onions, and shredded cabbage and carrot salad. There are kabis kar (pickled green chill) and fresh mint on the side that are worth adding for zip and freshness respectively. Once the sandwich is assembled, it is then toasted for extra crunch, which is a nice touch.        

Abu Afif

Another good option if on the hunt for shawarma on Edgware Road. Lamb is the one to go for here, which is piquant and enticingly singed. Better still, in addition to ordering it in a wrap, diners can order it in a rhombus-shaped, crusty samoun, or a doughier, thicker tanoor baked in a clay oven. It comes with warm tomatoes that sit underneath the spit, salad, and optional sauces. The key here is to avoid everything but the tahini sauce, as the heavy spicing of the meat calls for a simple contrast. A word of warning for chilli lovers: don’t be tempted by the chilli sauce, as it tastes generic, sweet and detracts from an otherwise great meat-in-bread experience.

Cafe Helen

Edgware Road offers a copious, even overwhelming amount of places to eat Lebanese shawarma, but out of all of them, Cafe Helen is the best bet. Both the chicken and lamb are more subtly spiced than Ranoush Juice or other Lebanese spots, and the flavour is still giving. All the components of the sandwich are compactly packed into a khobez wrap: the pickled cucumbers are punchy; the amounts of tahini and toum well-balanced — and the chilli sauce offers a pleasingly effervescent kick.

Rovi

In this vegetarian alternative, unlike at Noma, the celeriac is not moulded around a spit, but rather grilled till it is at once succulent and charcoaled. Served inside a “wild farmed” pita with plenty of wholesome whole grain flavour, it is accompanied by pickled celeriac; creme fraiche; bkeila (a Tunisian-Jewish condiment of spinach cooked down for hours in oil); crispy onions, and a side serving of chilli-laced fermented tomato for an extra layer of flavour. At £17 for a small plate, it is not exactly a generous portion, but it is a complex, clever, and subtle dish.

Hiba Street Food

The silky hummus and verdant falafel are superior to the shawarma here, but the lamb shawarma wrap is still worth ordering. The meat itself could be more charred but it is pretty well-cooked, and the spicing has a sweet touch. The toasting on the wrap is well judged too. What’s more is that the chefs endeavour to pair the meats with the ingredients that suit them best, as is done in Palestinian cuisine. Thus, whilst the chicken comes with toum, the lamb comes with tahini sauce, tomato, raw onion, and tangy pickles. The shatta is tangy and sour, with the heat almost background, and is worth ordering on the side for the occasional dip. Expect startlingly rapid service.

Shatta and Toum

As the main event at Berenjak’s new mezze medley joint in Arcade Hall, this is as gloriously flavourful and fatty as shawarma gets. Experimenting with separate chicken and lamb shawarmas, the chefs eventually opted for one shawarma option with a 75 to 25 percent ratio of lamb to chicken. As the spit turns, a mixture of lamb fat, schmaltz and butter is continually basted on the meat, which has been spiced with kashmiri chilli, black pepper, turmeric and saffron. Diners can order the shawarma in a khobez wrap with hummus, toum, tomato, red onion, salted cucumber, parsley, or opt for a portion of hummus adorned with shawarma and confit garlic and tomato as part of a broader mezze selection.

Shawarma Bar

At Berber and Q’s Exmouth Market venue, there is lamb for the carnivores, and cauliflower for the veggies. Either can be ordered in a classic pita, or as a rice bowl or plate. The restaurant recommends ordering a plate — which means more toppings — for the full experience of mixing, matching, and constructing the ideal bite. The lamb itself is tender enough, really flavoursome, with a satisfying char on the outside.  The charred fluffy bread gets slightly wetter than one might hope underneath the meat, but not too wet to get to work on building the goods. All the fillings have their place: velvety tahini sauce; smokey, spicy slightly and sweet harissa; fresh undressed herbs with shredded red cabbage; sumac-dressed onions; tangy hot green peppers; and then the highlights: Sweet, turmeric pickled cucumbers with a perfectly conceived level of delicate tang; and cumin salt which really ties the whole experience together. Cauliflower shawarma can be ordered as a side. Here it isn’t really shawarma, but for the smokiness on the outside which somewhat resembles the experience of eating shawarma. Pine nuts, and pomegranate and dried rose petals as toppings do make it a deliciously aromatic thing to eat, however, even if a little more tahini sauce underneath would be welcome.

Palmyra’s Kitchen

If looking for Lebanese food in Northeast London, this is the spot, and the shawarma is good, evidenced by the well-layered spits of chicken and lamb, topped with a surface of fat, and crowned with lemons. Diners can order a mixed plate with some very tasty vermicelli rice for £14, but the wrap — at £6.75 for mixed, £6.49 for lamb, or £6.20 for chicken — is better value-for-money, and offers a fuller shawarma experience. Both the lamb and chicken are crisp on the outside and moist enough on the inside, speckled with some of their spices: ginger and cumin for the chicken; cinnamon and cumin for the lamb. The toum is rich and appropriately garlicky, and the chilli sauce mild but flavoursome. The winning accompaniment here is the dill-pickled cucumber, which has a curious, intricate flavour. If opting to dine in for a full meal, add on the pomegranate-laced chicken livers, which are not to be missed.

Holy Pitta

One of the better food joints on Upper Street, the gyros/yeeros (the menu makes space for both spellings) is decent. On a plate, diners can order pork or chicken, which comes with tzatziki, tomatoes, onions and hand-cut fries. The wrap options are chicken or a “holy” mix of both, placed inside a soft, slightly golden-coloured pita, with a tangy feta sauce, onion, lettuce and fries. The main difference with a typical shawarma here (in addition to the type of meat and shape and appearance of the bread) is the welcome contrast provided by the yoghurt or cheese.

Gökyüzü Restaurant

If wanting to understand how good the Turkish döner really can be, go to this Green Lanes institution. Both the chicken and lamb rotating skewers are of course produced from whole pieces of meat that are configured on the spit, not pre-minced mixes. Both are delicious and as “succulent” and “tongue-bursting” as their menu boasts, as is the thicker-grained vermicelli rice that accompanies them. Like everything at Gökyüzü, the quality of the cooking and ingredients shine through.

Yemanes

The owners of this much-loved Peckham street stand put their own Algerian spin on the shawarma wrap. There’s a choice of chicken or lamb, but the latter is the winner. It isn’t cooked on a spit, but rather on a plancha, before being rolled up in a Yemanes flatbread (also cooked on a plancha) with a red kidney bean spread; fresh pepper hummus; stewed lentils; feta and olive oil cream; and chilli sauce. It may feel a little idiosyncratic, but it is a very satisfying wrap with the right level of spicing, heat and contrast. Watching the bread being rolled out and cooked moments before eating it certainly adds to the experience.

Alhaji SUYA Peckham

In the late 19th century, Lebanese migrants arrived in Lagos, and there is now a population of Lebanese Nigerians in the tens of thousands. Nigeria’s version of shawarma, a popular dish across the country, however, does not require meat from a rotating spit, and refers mainly to the idea of grilled, spiced meat wrapped inside a flatbread. It is the same meat that is used in suya — fatty and charred, but more thinly sliced. At Alhaji Suya, diners can choose tozo (fatty beef), beef, lamb, or chicken, and as in the Levant, lamb works well. Accompanying it are saveloy-esque chicken hot dogs (a nostalgic surprise); fresh shredded red cabbage; a luscious sauce made from mayonnaise, tomato and garlic; and a sprinkling of fiery yaji to cut through the sweetness. A trip without tasting the tozo suya would be a little foolish, so come very hungry!

La Chingada Mexican Food

In his chapter of Making Levantine Cuisine, food scholar Harry Eli Kashdan argues that al pastor must be included in the category from the perspective of culinary history, because it is derived from the “signature Levantine culinary innovation of the vertical spit.” Whilst Kashdan also recognises that this may not be the case from the perspective of the consumer — particularly due to the use of pork instead of halal meats — the way the category of shawarma breaks down in London would make it amiss to omit this dish brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants; at least al pastor meat is still carved from a spit. But to burrito or to taco? Perhaps the burrito is more similar to the shawarma wrap in its capacity to hold everything in one white flour tortilla (which isn’t so far from the khobez in texture and weight), but with the addition of rice, the meat /spice/sauce contrast gets buried. The corn taco is a thoroughly different bread flavour-wise, but with the palpable sear on the meat, the parallel of charred smokiness and heavy spice with a creamy jalapeno sauce and raw onion makes for an experience not a million miles away. The slice of pineapple’s contribution to the profound abundance of flavour might take it one step further away from its ancestor, but shawarma should be proud to call the al pastor taco at La Chingada its descendant.

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