Don’t sleep on chicken shawarma

Students know Farmstead for simple, delicious classics like baked salmon, roasted carrots or mashed potatoes. Farmstead’s offerings usually don’t feature a mélange of vegetables and meats like in the Ginger + Soy’s Chicken Teriyaki bowl, nor a layering of carb to meat to cheese to vegetable, like in ABP’s toasted chicken avocado sandwich. Instead, a singular vegetable or meat is the star of the show.

On a stage that cherishes its soloists, the chicken shawarma is an unlikely performer, and perhaps this is why few people know about the chicken shawarma. But it deserves to be more than a bit player; with its spectacular looks and unmistakable flavor, the chicken shawarma has the starpower to play the leading role.  

In a dining hall full of photogenic colleagues, the chicken shawarma is an underdog. It has neither the cheese pull of an Il Forno pizza nor the sliced avocado of a Thrive salmon bowl nor the brightly-colored sauces and garnishes of a Ginger + Soy poke bowl—“aesthetic” features necessary for Insta-fame. That said, some Insta-foods’ beauty distracts from questionable flavor—like those sky-blue, spirulina-colored, overripe-banana-flavored smoothie bowls. But what the shawarma does have is authenticity; its most photogenic attributes also reflect its best qualities.

Opening the white takeout container to a warm, pillowy pastel-green shawarma is like opening a satin jewelry box to a sparkling emerald. Smoky char marks hint at a crispy exterior and attest to the shawarma’s freshness—this isn’t your typical limp, refrigerated wrap. Inside, visible flecks of pepper and dry rub dot hearty chunks of aioli-smothered chicken. Thin slivers of tart Greek pickles are interspersed throughout like wildflowers in an open meadow.

The shawarma is also a flavor bomb, an anomaly in a culinary landscape where seasoning is usually lacking. The chicken is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and a generous layer of salty garlic aioli married with peppery dry rub packs an umami punch. Tart, crisp Greek pickles brighten this protein-heavy dish.

The chicken shawarma has developed a cult following. I talked to Euwan Kim, a shawarma fanatic who hasn’t gone a Tuesday lunch or dinner without shawarma. She runs a shawarma fan page on Instagram called @shawarmastagram with 44 followers and counting. For Kim, eating shawarma is not just a meal; sinking her teeth in shawarma “can only [be described] as a divine indulgence.”

The shawarma provides Kim with physical sustenance, but also social, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Eating chicken shawarma reminds her of “Tuesday nights in early November on the steps outside WU, slowly eating shawarma and surrounded by friends (some shawarma lovers and some shawarma-hating heathens).” She has rallied a community around the humble shawarma, and full disclosure; I am one of her converts.

But before you try the shawarma—and I genuinely hope that you will—a warning. The chicken shawarma is not so much an ABP wrap, and more closely resembles a Chipotle burrito. Stuffed to the brim with fragrant chicken, juicy pickles, and tangy sauce, the shawarma is massive. Yet the spinach wrap shows no cracks. The shawarma is nutritious, flavorful, Instagrammable and delicious all at once.

Similarly, Duke students juggle research, socializing, pre-med coursework, work-study, the gym and weekly facetimes home to Mom. In this sense, the shawarma embodies the quintessence of a Duke student—the one who balances it all. To be sure, effortless perfection is a real problem at Duke. However, I believe what helps students maintain balance is Duke’s uniquely collaborative environment and the communities they have built. The spinach wrap for the shawarma is what our friends, professors and advisors are to us; warm and welcoming, yet supportive and substantial.

Like Kim, for me there are few greater joys than a delightful dinner of shawarma and mashed potatoes on the steps outside WU with my close circle of shawarma-lovers. The weight of a toasty, pillowy shawarma warms my hands, and the fragrance of pepper, spices, garlic and char irradiates this chilly evening. Brilliant coral clouds ripple across an inky sky as I lose myself in the folds of the shawarma. I ride a lime-green surfboard over zesty aioli waves to Flavortown, entering a world that is not of substance, but of texture, of pleasure, of bliss. I forget my sorrows, my joys, the policy brief I haven’t yet written and my belongings, left behind in Rubenstein for this journey to the spiritual realm. Eating shawarma is an otherworldly experience: the crunch, then the chew of the wrap, the juices of a well-marinated chicken and dashes of lemony aioli dancing in my mouth. The happiness of being lost in the sauce lingers even when only crumbs remain.

This was at the same dinner in early November with Euwan Kim. We may eat our shawarma differently (I like pickles, she doesn’t), but we can both agree on one thing; Farmstead’s chicken shawarma is “like something out of a movie... and it is beautiful.”

Jessica Luan is a Trinity first year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. 


Share and discuss “Don’t sleep on chicken shawarma” on social media.