Friday, January 4, 2013

The Magic of Meshwe

"Dear, you should try T***** Shawarma. It's really good. It's close to the real thing," a friend of mine once told me. Without giving myself an opportunity to blink, I rushed to a nearby mall where the said shawarma stall was located and bought one. When the guy who made it handed it to me, I immediately unwrapped it like an overly excited child, opening a long-waited-for gift on a Christmas morning. I took a bite. After tasting it, all I could utter to myself was, "Nah. This isn't even anywhere near the real thing." It's the same "shawarma" that I have had in the past seven (7) years or so in the Philippines. The white sauce was bland and watery (the sauce of a real shawarma is supposed to be thick) and it kept dripping down my hands and onto my dress. UGH. It had cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes and onions in it. I don't recall eating shawarma in Saudi Arabia with those in it! The beef was dry, gummy and so burnt that I had to exert extra effort to break down the meat in my mouth. Needless to state, I was disappointed. And it's not the first time.

A few months after, my sisters and I discovered a restaurant in Malate that serves Middle Eastern food. Yes, they do have authentic Mediterranean items in their menu but when we ordered their chicken shawarma, our high expectations fell flat on the floor. This is hopeless, we thought. We will never get to taste real shawarma again. *insert weeping face here*

Sometime in August, Nathan Mounayer, a good friend of mine from high school, announced in his Facebook account that he would be serving authentic shawarma and other Lebanese cuisine at Mercato Centrale, located at the Fort, Taguig. While I was a little apprehensive about its authenticity, I nevertheless had a gut feeling that it could be the answer to my almost decade-long quest for the real shawarma. (It may sound a little too dramatic but I'm certain every Saudi kid has been on a similar search ever since he/she started living in the country.)

I excitedly told my sisters about it and we all agreed that we would raid Mercato one Friday or Saturday night and taste Meshwe's shawarma together. Sabay sabay dapat, walang iwanan. Haha. But the traitor that I am, I decided to break the pact one Saturday night after an exhausting three-hour class and headed to Mercato.

Filled with exhilaration, I immediately looked for Nathan's stall upon arriving. When I spotted him shaving the chicken meat from the rotating spit, my elation shot up even more and I walked as fast as my legs could carry me

When I got there and after my hi-hello-how-have-you-been exchanges with Nathan, I ordered about three chicken shawarma sandwiches, one shawarma plate, and extra garlic sauce. After a while, my orders were ready and it was time to see (or in this case, taste) for myself if there's any veracity to Nathan's Facebook posts that his chicken shawarma is the real deal.

And my reaction after the first bite?

Do you remember that scene in the animated film Ratatouille when the extremely-hard-to-please food critic Anton Ego first tasted Remy's ratatouille, showing how Remy's concoction magically reawakened a comforting childhood gastronomic memory in him?

Yes, I'm referring to this scene:

That's exactly how I felt after my taste buds' first contact with Meshwe's chicken shawarma. It was an utterly delightfully nostalgic experience--the pita bread, the slowly grilled chicken, the french fries, the pickles, and the to-die-for garlic sauce. GOD. That's what I had been looking for during my entire stay here in the Manille! It really IS the real deal. I was almost enchantingly transported back to my Riyadh/Jeddah days when my family and I would go to Batha or Balad on a Thursday night for a little shopping and have chicken shawarma and falafel after. Or those times when my younger siblings and I would save our meager five (5) Riyals allowance, use the money to buy shawarma and hold a "shawarmafest" in the house while our parents were out. Or those times when I would get good grades in school and my father would reward me with shawarma. Haha. Yes, I've always been shallow.

Meshwe's shawarma indeed allowed me to relive memories of my home (to this day, I consider Riyadh/Jeddah as my home)--that's how authentic it is. And because it enabled me to somehow re-experience my life in Riyadh/Jeddah (and of course because it's beyond mouth-wateringly delicious), I kept coming back almost every Saturday night. My sisters and I would have it for dinner and breakfast the following day. It was something that became part of our weekend routine, a tradition--until, sadly, Nathan announced in Meshwe's page that he would no longer be serving in Mercato. *insert weeping face here* It really broke my heart not only because my sisters and I would no longer get to taste authentic Lebanese shawarma (at least until Meshwe resumes operations *crosses fingers*) but, as Nathan's good friend (we knew each other way back in high school; we were both officers of our school's Student Council for the same term), I was really rooting for him and it was just heartrending to see him and Meshwe go...especially after he informed me that his stint at Mercato was actually based on a contest and the reason for his leaving was he didn't win.

(Readers, brace yourselves for a lengthy rant after this sentence.)

Boo you, judges! I don't personally know you but who are you to judge the authenticity of a real Lebanese shawarma when, I'm quite sure, the shawarma you have tasted all your lives are the bland, watery ones being sold at the mall food courts and LRT/MRT stations? Who are you to say what's authentic and what's not? You guys are like Paula Abdul as a judge in American Idol--for the love of God, she can't sing and she was engaged to judge a singing contest!

I may not be an established food blogger--or a blogger at that--but having spent 18 years of my life in Saudi Arabia and having eaten mostly Middle Eastern food (of course, shawarma included) during those years should vest me (and other similarly situated Riyadh/Jeddah OFW kids) some degree of authority to say what's real, authentic shawarma (or falafel or kabsa or garlic sauce) and what's not. So whatever you say doesn't matter. I have tasted Meshwe's shawarma and other offerings and yes, they are the real deal.

The first time I tried Meshwe's chicken shawarma. That's Chef Nathan and me, giving him and Meshwe my stamp of approval. :)
Falafel Sandwich. This was a new addition to Meshwe's menu and I loved it to bits.

The Morning After: Using the remnants of the garlic sauce to add flavor to my egg pandesal sandwhich for breakfast. :)

Shawarmafest with my sisters on a Saturday night!

Top photo (L-R) Chef Nat; his younger brother, Noel; myself; my nephew, baby Big Mac; my younger sister, Nellie. The photo below shows my sisters enjoying their shawarma like a boss! :)

To Chef Nat, this is just a temporary setback and I have faith that you and Meshwe will go a long way. I'm not just saying this because you are my friend but because your Lebanese cooking is the real thing. You know what you're talking about when you say Meshwe serves authentic Lebanese food. No bluff, no exaggerated claims, and no overrated praises.
I can't wait for the day when my sisters and I would be able to hold shawarmafest on Saturday nights again courtesy of Meshwe. Inshaallah, we won't have to wait too long. But in the meantime that we can't have that yet, allow me to thank you for bringing authentic chicken shawarma, falafel sandwich, and garlic sauce in Manila. And because of Meshwe, I was also able to see some IPSJians whom I haven't met in so many years so thank you for that too.
P.S. This is a repost from Meshwe's Facebook page: "If you live near Fairview or Novaliches Lagro, you could order from us for pick-up. A minimum order of 10 sandwiches is required. :)"
So if you are a resident of that area (lucky you!), go ahead and treat yourself to real Lebanese goodness. You may also contact Meshwe at 0927-663-8764. Bon appetit! :)

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