Poutine? That’s more of a Quebec thing. Back bacon? That’s just stereotyping Canadians. Arguably rivalled only by BeaverTails, shawarma – marinated rotisserie chicken or beef, an assortment of veggies, hummus and creamy garlic sauce(s) served in a grilled pita – is Ottawa’s quintessential dish.
But in 1989, when Aziz Dawi first arrived in the city, there were few if any restaurants in Ottawa serving shawarma or falafel (vegan–friendly deep–fried chickpea balls), which often go hand–in–hand. Dawi, a Lebanese chef, had served Canadian and Italian staples on military bases since arriving in Canada from South Lebanon in 1971, but when he got to Canada’s capital, he thought he would try his hand at the fast food he knew back home – only with a twist. The shawarma he wanted to serve was a mashup of North American topping–focused fast–food counters like Subway or McDonald’s, and the original Lebanese version, which only has lamb, chicken or beef, hummus, garlic sauce and usually served with French fries.
So, in 1997, Dawi opened Shawarma Palace in downtown Ottawa, joining a small group of similar restaurants, including Shawarma King on Bank Street and Marroush (now closed) on Elgin Street.
But the first two years were a struggle for Dawi, according to his daughter, Hanadi, who took over the family business with her brother, Ahmad Sobh, when their dad died eight years ago. “It took time because not everybody knew what shawarma was,” she says.