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'Shawarma capital' of Canada has some juicy secrets in Blossom Park

Ottawa is home to nearly 200 restaurants that offer its beloved staple food: shawarma. Why are we so obsessed? CBC's search for answers led us to Blossom Park, where there is a shawarma shop in nearly every corner.

Homemade flavours, traditional eats can be found in the neighbourhood

'Shawarma capital' of Canada has some juicy secrets in Blossom Park

2 months ago
Duration 5:13
Ottawa is home to nearly 200 restaurants that offer its beloved staple food: shawarma. Why are we so obsessed? CBC's search for answers led us to Blossom Park, where there is a shawarma shop in nearly every corner.

There are very few people in Ottawa who don't know what a shawarma is and even fewer who don't absolutely love it. 

Christopher Wiens said he can eat shawarma every day. He believes it's served up so well here, it should be the city's official dish. 

"In this day and age, especially in our nation's capital, the shawarma is now [as] Canadian as poutine," he said. 

He might not be that far off. 

Local shawarma connoisseurs say the origins of the dish likely date back several centuries to the Ottoman Empire, which eventually became modern-day Turkey. The shawarma became a staple street food in the Middle East.

The word means "turning" in Arabic, referring to its preparation on a vertical rotisserie.

A restaurant worker slices pieces of meat off a spit.
An employee at Shawarma Station slices thin layers of chicken off a rotating rotisserie. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

Ottawa is home to nearly 200 restaurants that offer shawarma either exclusively or as an option alongside other popular meals like pizza.

So why are we so obsessed? 

CBC's search for answers led us to Blossom Park south of the core, where there is a large Arab population and a shawarma shop in nearly every corner — each of them with their own shawarma claim to fame.

"Ottawa is offering one of the best shawarma in the world," said Bassam Naanoua, owner of Shawarma Station. 

It all begins with pita

The deep dive into Ottawa's love affair with shawarma starts with the bread. 

Karen Hanna-Nesrallah said it was her family who introduced Ottawa to pita in the 1960s.

Over the decades, her family expanded the business to become a staple in many supermarkets with its recognizable red and yellow packaging.

However, Hanna-Nesrallah still recalls stories her mother told her about how customers didn't fully understand what pitas were, let alone how to eat them. 

Customers would say "'You can make two sandwiches instead of one with your bread? Like you can actually open it up and can get two sides!' My mom would be like, 'Yeah, you can,'" Hanna-Nesrallah said.

A rack of wrapped pitas with a red and yellow logo.
Karen Hanna-Nesrallah says her parents helped bring pita bread to Ottawa with Hanna's Bakery. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

Hanna-Nesrallah believes the influx of Lebanese people to Ottawa in the mid-1970s and 90s is partly why the nation's capital has so many of these restaurants. 

To grab the attention of new customers, restaurant owners would operate late hours in the hopes of capitalizing on Ottawa's nightlife. 

"Pita bread was also a healthier alternative, with very little preservatives in it, if any, and it just became a healthier way of life," she said.

"So you saw a lot of shawarma stations pop up … not only in the commercial sectors of town, but also in different neighbourhoods.

"It became a 'let's take a platter home with a salad' … instead of going out to get a hamburger and fries."

Ottawa is home to nearly 200 restaurants that offer its beloved staple food: shawarma. Why are we so obsessed?

Ottawa's meat like no other 

Blossom Park's shawarma shop owners offered some insight into Ottawa's garlicky fixation and shared how their joints contribute to the city's unique shawarma scene.

Naanoua with Shawarma Station told CBC News he helped bring shawarma to the city.

That was almost 30 years ago and he now owns seven other shops. 

A shawarma shop owner poses next to a counter.
Bassam Naanoua, owner of Shawarma Station, says he helped bring Ottawa's favourite sandwich to the nation's capital decades ago. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

He said at first, his customers were mainly of Middle Eastern background. 

"But now, it's very well known to everyone," Naanoua said. "Seventy-five per cent of our customers are not Lebanese."

He said people who have travelled to the Middle East still tell him that Ottawa still has the best meat.

Naanoua said the quality of ingredients is what makes Ottawa's shawarma stand out.

"The chicken, the vegetables … it's top quality." 

Ozzy Wehbe, owner of Ozzy Food Market, said he makes his own spices and all the slow-roasted meat comes from his meat shop. 

"[It's] the best shawarma in Ottawa," he boasts.

A shawarma shop owners holds up a slab of raw meat.
Ozzy Wehbe, owner of Ozzy Food Market, says all the slow roasted meat for his shawarma comes from his meat shop. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

Wehbe says he marinates his meat for more than 12 hours before putting it on the rotisserie, which then roasts it for hours more. He says his meat has no added preservatives.

"No hormones, no antibiotics," he said. "That's what makes it so special and different from everybody else."

"Ottawa is the capital of shawarma," professes Osama Abu Daqqa, co-founder of Laheeb. 

A shawarma shop owners poses in a restaurant.
Osama Abu Daqqa, co-founder of Laheeb, says his restaurant is serving up authentic shawarma. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

While each bite might transport your taste buds to the Middle East, Abu Daqqa said what Ottawa residents are used to biting into is not the authentic shawarma.

For instance, a chicken shawarma would be traditionally served with garlic sauce and fries inside the sandwich with no additional toppings.

It is also served on saj bread — a much thinner flatbread than a pita — and sliced into bite sized pieces. 

A sliced chicken wrap on a platter of fries.
A traditional shawarma served with fries. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

This version is available for those wanting to try a more traditional shawarma, he said.

"We serve the shawarma the way it should be served like back home," Abu Daqqa added.

All that is left to decide is who has the best shawarma in Ottawa. Comment below and tell us your favourite local spot.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachelle Elsiufi

Host of CBC News Ottawa at 11

Rachelle Elsiufi is a journalist with CBC Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter with Citynews in Edmonton. You can reach her at rachelle.elsiufi@cbc.ca

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