KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Sandwiched inconspicuously amid the rows of shoplots in Bangsar’s popular Telawi area is Shawarma King. The eatery takes up half a shoplot and is incredibly easy to miss. I walked past it twice without even realising it was there.
But once you enter the restaurant, it’s a different story altogether. Here, colours abound, from the mosaic-patterned cushions to the rainbow-hued glass jars festooned over parts of the dining area.
And the cherry on this cheerful cake is Ms Sara Kwaider, its bubbly young managing partner. Free-spirited and vivavious with a smile so wide it is practically a grin, Ms Kwaider grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving to Malaysia 10 years ago. But the call of her homeland remains strong, mainly because her relationship with the Middle East runs blood deep.
“I am literally a percentage of every single country in the Middle East – for real. My grandma is Egyptian, I have another grandma who’s Turkish, and you’ll find Palestinian, Saudi, Syrian and Lebanese lineage on my dad’s side, so I am really quite mixed,” she says with a laugh.
Shawarma King is the brainchild of Ms Kwaider and her business partner Paul Maria Dass. The idea for a shawarma eatery had been fermenting for a few years following a successful foray at a rock festival, where she recruited a Middle Eastern restaurant to cater food at one of the stalls and ended up being overwhelmed by the response.
“We were the second-highest selling stall at the entire event – and we were first-timers with completely zero experience,” she says.
Consequently, both she and Mr Dass felt there was a need for an Arabic restaurant that also paid tribute to local flavours.
“Bangsar is a very nice hub for a lot of cultural delicacies. And Arab food was really missing – not only authentic Arabic food, but also Arabic food that embraces Malaysian fusion flavours. So on our menu, there’s Arabic food, but if you want to try something new and different, you can also try it here,” she says.
Shawarma generally involves different cuts of meat marinated in an array of spices and cooked on a vertical spit, with meat stacked to form a conical shape. The meat gets cooked in layers, so once the outer layer is cooked, it is sliced off, leaving the meat inside to continue to cook, meaning that every time an order is generated, the meat is sliced off layer by layer, depending on which part is cooked at any given time. This cooked meat is then typically served in a wrap (normally a pita wrap) with sauces and vegetables.
At Shawarma King, the kitchen is manned by Syrian chef Abd al Rahman al Khayat, who has nearly a decade of experience. You are likely to see him near the entrance of the restaurant, shaving off pieces of meat from the shawarma towers he has carefully constructed. The meat that he cooks goes through a nearly 24-hour marination period to ensure tenderness and flavour. The meat variants are also carefully selected – the lamb shawarma is made up of tenderloin, lamb fat and minced lamb, while the chicken shawarma is made up of chicken breast and leg.
“One thing I think people don’t realise about cooking shawarma is that it’s a very respected job to have – it’s a Michelin-star kind of appreciation that Arabs have for shawarma chefs,” says Ms Kwaider, nodding fondly in chef Rahman’s direction.
One look at the menu and you will realise that Shawarma King lives up to its name as it is stuffed full of shawarma options. Start your meal here with the star player – the namesake Shawarma King (RM18.20 or S$6.15), which features chicken and lamb shawarma, tomato, lettuce, cabbage, pickles and onions and garlic sauce, mint sauce, Arabic chilli sauce, pomegranate sauce and tahini. The portion is pretty huge (weighing in at 500g) and the best way to eat it is to pick it up and take giant mouthfuls. The flavours here are good – the lamb and chicken offer tender, juicy bites interpersed with crunchy vegetables and the rich sauces. It is a harmonious symphony of textures and flavours, although it would perhaps be better with more sauce to bind everything together.
If you are after a more Malaysian iteration of shawarma, try the Malaysian Chicken (RM13.30), which incorporates a localised chilli sauce akin to the one that accompanies chicken rice. It is a fiesty, tasty addition that will find fans in spice fiends.
Shawarma King has also introduced a whole series of vegetarian options, in line with requests it was getting from customers. From the green options, try the Green Queen (RM14.50), which features a wrap filled with fried eggplant and cauliflower with a pre-made salad and garlic sauce and Arabic chilli sauce rounding off this mixture. This wrap is delicious – the eggplant is luscious and slightly crispy around the edges, while the cauliflower offers textural crunch in every morsel (although some florets were slightly burnt).
Another solid vegetarian choice is the Tabbouleh (RM10.20), a popular Middle Eastern salad composed of parsley, tomatoes, mint, couscous and onions seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. The salad is fresh and herbaceous, with the couscous adding bite to each mouthful and the lemon juice offering zesty spikes.
Then there is the Shawarma Grail (RM18.20), made with chicken and lamb shawarma, traditional hummus, vegetables, feta cheese and tartar sauce. The dish arrives in a clear goblet (hence the grail reference) and you have to dig your spoon in to get to the bits at the bottom. This was a tad subdued compared to the other menu options, but it offers something different for people looking for a lighter meal.
Possibly the most exciting thing on Shawarma King’s menu is the Mandi Lamb Fakhar (RM17.80) a fusion dish which features rice cooked in a claypot with lamb tenderloin shawarma and vegetable puree. Once you mix everything together, you will discover a robustly flavoured hedonistic meal designed to create pure, unadulterated pleasure. The amalgamation of tender grilled lamb against the slightly spicy puree and well-cooked rice will have you thinking: “I need to plan my next trip here soon!”
End your meal at Shawarma King with a cup of Arabic Qahwah coffee (RM9). In 2015, Arabic coffee was added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list as it is seen as an important aspect of hospitality in Arab societies.
For Ms Kwaider though, it offers a taste of home. “I grew up drinking this. We would have it during Ramadan and my mother would serve it to guests who came to our house,” she says.
The coffee is made with semi-sweet Arabica beans and served black. As a result, it is very liquid, but also bold and pronounced, while also somehow being calming and pleasant, with spice-laden undertones. It is akin to Indian masala tea, but without the milk.
Although Shawarma King is still new, Ms Kwaider is already embarking on potential expansion ideas.
“I’m very interested in food carts. It’s the wave of the future and you can take them to all the leisure parks that Malaysia is investing in. And these carts transform into beautiful shawarma-making machines,” she says happily.
8 Jalan Telawi 2
59100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2201 4174
Open: Tuesdays to Wednesdays, 5pm to 2am; Thursdays to Saturdays, 5pm to 3am; Sundays, 5pm to midnight