Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wrapped in a pita

Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times - Reem sells more than 5,000 sandwiches a day for about $1 apiece, drawing crowds from all social strata every day

Customers waited for a shawarma sandwich at the Reem shawarma stand in Amman, Jordan.

If you were to slow everything down, this is what you would see: scoop of sauce, pinch of onions, scoop of tomatoes, shovel in some meat, roll it all up in a pita.

But who has time to slow down? The crowds are always pressed up against the gate — in the searing heat of a Jordan summer day or the desert chill of a cold winter night — outside Reem, a hole-in-the wall takeout place with a reputation for the best beef and lamb shawarma sandwiches in the Middle East.

Shawarma is marinated meat grilled on an upright skewer, then shaved off in bits and rolled in a pita. It looks like a Greek gyro.

Behind the counter, Alaa Abdel Fattah flies through ingredients, rocking at the waist, with the focus and precision of an athlete. He assembles sandwiches in a blur. Four seconds each. “You get used to it,” he says, pausing for a moment to wipe sweat from his brow. And then back at it because the crowds never let up.

I like my gyro. The place in Hewlett makes a really good one, hearty, with an immense serving of lettuce, some clerey, a couple of slices of tomato and a few of red onion included. I get a side of yogurt on the side, and am good to go.

Jordanians acknowledge that shawarma was originally imported, probably from Turkey, maybe from Greece, but it has clearly become a local food, having been adapted to native tastes and customs.

Reem has buzz.

It was founded in 1976 by Ahmed Ali Bani Hammad, who had worked as a cook in Lebanon, which is known for the best, freshest cuisine in the region. He returned home and opened his own shop. It is narrow, just wide enough for a cashier, two upright gas ovens to cook the meat, and an assembly of eight young men who cook, cut and serve nonstop.

Little has changed since he opened the place, except that now his sons, Sammer and Khalid, run the business. They drive around the city in a Porsche Cayenne and dress in expensive leather jackets.

“You make good money with shawarma?”

“Yes we do,” said Sammer Bani Hammad, the eldest son, laughing. He inherited the most important family responsibility when his father died five years ago.

5,000 bucks a day is very good money, anywhere.

Reem goes through more than 1,000 pounds of meat a day.

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