It Happens

State Versus Shawarma

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The humble Middle Eastern roll gets a bad rap in Kerala after reports of mass food poisoning

Shawarma, the middle Eastern chicken roll, is finding itself under attack in Kerala. There is a government crackdown on it. Many joints have closed down and people have stopped eating it.

On 10 July, Shobi Thilakan, an actor, and his family ate the snack in a restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram. All of them were hospitalised with food poisoning. He reported their ordeal to the Food Safety Commissioner’s office. The case got wide publicity and ten more people came forth with the same complaint. Two days later, a student who had consumed a shawarma roll in Thiruvananthapuram was found dead in Bangalore, leading to a state-wide panic. The government launched a campaign against eateries flouting hygiene norms.

Since July, over 800 eateries have been raided, 436 issued ‘improvement’ notices and 46 closed down. Other forms of food have also been held responsible for food poisoning. Even a KFC outlet was forced to down its shutters for a while after a customer found worms in its chicken. But for some reason, all such cases tend to remind people of the shawarma. It has become a symbol of all that ails food hygiene in the state. So much so that in Kochi, the District Collector even imposed a temporary ban on it.

It is not clear just why shawarma should become such a bad word when the rot is in the ingredients. Mansoor Ahmed, a shawarma specialist, says that keeping the eggs near the spit is a common mistake, since exposure to high temperatures could hasten their decay. If not the egg, the chicken could be at fault. “Chicken brought from unlicensed agents in Tamil Nadu who do not keep [proper] standards of preservation is a key source of contamination,” says K Anilkumar, Joint Food and Safety Commissioner.

There is no point in blaming shawarma, agrees Anilkumar. “The problem lies with our hygiene standards,” says Mohamed Razakh of Malappuram, who used to make these rolls in Sharjah before moving back to work in a restaurant in Kozhikode. “Whatever you prepare with rotten eggs, meat or contaminated vegetables will have high chances of food poisoning. It does not have to be shawarma,” he says.