click to enlarge A shawarma sandwich platter at Shawarmaji.

Photo by Rawan Elhalaby

A shawarma sandwich platter at Shawarmaji.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Shawarmaji to Open in Forage Kitchen

Mohammad Abutaha makes shawarma the way he ate it growing up in Amman, Jordan.

By Katherine Hamilton
Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 4:00 AM

Shawarmaji, a new Jordan-style shawarma pop-up, is scheduled to open at Forage Kitchen in Uptown Oakland on Feb. 10.

It's the latest project from chef Mohammad Abutaha, who spent most of his childhood and young adult years living in Amman, Jordan. Abutaha comes from a food-loving family. "I learned how to eat in Jordan," Abutaha joked.

After moving to the States partway through college to study mechanical engineering, Abutaha found himself missing the food from back home and started cooking those dishes for himself. Meanwhile, a career in engineering didn't feel like the right fit. "I really wanted to open a restaurant one day," he said. "I really wanted to work with food."

So Abutaha took a job as a dishwasher. "Everybody [was] looking at me weird, like, 'Why are you a dishwasher when you're an engineer?'" Abutaha recalled. But Abutaha worked his way up the ranks, cooking at Bay Area restaurants including Maven, Reem's, and most recently, Noosh. He also hosted a series of Arab family-style pop-up dinners. He left Noosh in November after an ownership shakeup, and since then, he's been working on Shawarmaji, which previously operated as a pop-up at Reem's Fruitvale location on Sundays.

Abutaha has tried shawarma all over the Bay Area, but none reminded him of what he ate back in Amman. In Jordan, Abutaha said, "We also have hummus and falafel, we have mana'eesh. ... But shawarma is king. Everybody eats shawarma all day, all night." At Shawarmaji, he makes the Jordan-style shawarma he couldn't find anywhere else.

"It goes back to the fact that I'm a cook because I want to eat, not because I want to cook," Abutaha laughed.

What sets a Jordan-style shawarma apart from the rest? According to Abutaha, his shawarma sandwiches are minimalist and simple — just yogurt-marinated, spiced chicken roasted slowly on a spit, wrapped up with cucumber pickles and garlic sauce and griddled until crisp. The resulting creation is long and thin, not burrito-like as many other shawarma sandwiches can be. For unusual twists on shawarma that are popular in Jordan, Abutaha offers one with melted cheddar and a hot sauce called shatta; there's another with fries stuffed inside.

Abutaha also serves a shawarma sandwich platter that comes with a sliced-up sandwich, fries, olives, pickles, and a generous amount of garlic sauce for dipping. "We love the garlic sauce, and we try to put it on everything," Abutaha said.

Other unusual Jordan-style offerings include vegan falafel sandwiches served on a French roll, with the option to add fried eggplant and potatoes. 

Shawarmaji will be open at Forage Kitchen (478 25th St., Oakland) Monday through Wednesday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight.

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