Caroline Hollister is a communication studies junior and Mustang News study abroad columnist.
There is a large Moorish and Islamic influence in Granada. Spain as a whole hosted the Islamic culture for centuries, and Granada’s Muslim Kingdom was the very last to fall to Christian rulers King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. Combine that with the city’s close proximity to North Africa and you have a beautiful, unique and (now) harmonious mix of Spanish and Arab cultures.
Some well-known monuments with Arab influence include the Alhambra (a massive castle, Spain’s most visited monument), and the Albaicín, an old Muslim quarter with cobblestone streets and white-washed houses located on the hill opposite the castle. In addition to these two main attractions, there are mosques, teahouses and subtle detailing of mosaic tiles and archways everywhere you look. I was surprised to learn that even flamenco, a popular form of Spanish folk music and dance here in Andalucía (think of the emoji with the dancing lady in the red dress), has roots in Islamic culture.
It’s no surprise then, that Arab food has a place in Granada as well — and a very fond place in my heart and stomach. Hummus, tahini, falafel, baklava and couscous are a few of the well-known Arab specialties I loved before arriving here. Shawarma, however, was something totally new to me until approximately a month ago. Now that I know it exists, I’m not sure how I survived without it.
What is shawarma, exactly? Aside from being a gift from Allah, I can only really compare it to Turkish kebabs or Greek gyros … only better. If those references didn’t help, shawarma is basically some type of halal meat (meat prepared in accordance with Islamic law, very similar to the Jewish principal of Kosher) shaved off of a spit (a vertical rotating metal skewer) and wrapped in a warm, soft pita. Typically, you add lettuce and other veggies, tahini sauce or hummus, feta cheese and picante sauce, if you know what’s up. I’ve seen several variations since I’ve been here (some add eggs, some are pizza-inspired) — shawarma can really be anything you want it to be.
As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to eat this fast food for every meal, my roommate, Michelle, is an Arabic Studies major and loves frequenting the shawarma stands to practice speaking the language. She strikes up conversations with every shop owner, they fall in love with her blonde hair, blue eyes and appreciation of their culture, and before I know it, I’m enjoying complimentary Moroccan mint tea and falafel thanks to her irresistible charm.
We recently decided Kebab King, a restaurant in our neighborhood, has the best “pollo y queso shawarma.” The first time we went, Michelle (of course) made friends with the owner, Abrahim. We were chatting with him in a mix of Spanish and Arabic and the next thing we knew, he was inviting us over to his apartment for a traditional Moroccan feast — as is the warm, welcoming Arab way. We arrived to his home that night not knowing what to expect, but the expectations I did have were blown away the minute I walked through the door. He ushered us down a hallway that smelled of saffron and other spices to his living room, took our coats and bags, showed us to the sofa and quickly returned to preparing the meal. The only favor he asked of us the entire night was to take our shoes off, as is customary. A couple of his other loyal customers wandered in throughout the night. He gave us each a heaping bowl of couscous topped with a slow-cooked stew, followed by Moroccan mint tea, baklava and an assortment of sweet pastries dusted with cinnamon and finally, hookah.
In all seriousness, I think this was the most hospitality I’ve ever experienced. Our comfort was the source of his joy and his sole concern for those three or more hours, the food was spectacular, his guests were from all over the world and all walks of life and the vibes and conversation were lively and culturing as a result. All thanks to shawarma.