In Praise of the Toum at Oakland's Shawarmaji

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A spread of dishes from Shawarmaji including colorful pickles and shawarma being dipped into the garlicky white sauce known as toum.
Every order of shawarma at Shawarmaji comes with the garlicky white sauce known as toum. (Rawan Elhalaby)

I belong to the class of people who will always order the garlickiest, most pungent item on any given restaurant menu—the truly cultured ones who’d double- or triple-dip their bread into the legendary olio de la mamma at Berkeley’s Trattoria La Siciliana (RIP), or who lick up every last speck of garlic-butter sauce on a plate of roast crab at PPQ Dungeness Island. When eating Korean barbecue, I’ve been known to monopolize an entire bowl of raw garlic, packing several slivers into every lettuce-wrapped bite. 

Put it this way: If I can’t smell the food on my own breath a half an hour later, does it even count as having eaten? 

It should come as no surprise, then, that I’ve fallen head over heels in love with toum, the intensely garlicky white sauce that comes slathered inside every shawarma wrap at Shawarmaji, chef Mohammed Abutaha’s downtown Oakland emporium of Jordanian spit-grilled chicken and lamb. Shawarmaji’s shawarma is delicious—juicy, tender, crisp at the edges, served inside comically oversized wraps that the chef likens to a “missle.” But the toum might have as large a following as the shawarma itself. I started buying an extra eight-ounce tub of the stuff every time I ordered shawarma—mostly, at first, so that I had enough to dip my french fries into. But the sauce is so good, so versatile, and so wonderfully garlicky that my habit has spiraled into a full-blown obsession.

A tub of toum from Shawarmaji; the label lists the ingredients: garlic, canola oil, salt, lemon juice
Customers can purchase Shawarmaji's toum by the eight-ounce tub. (Rawan Elhalaby)

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve used Shawarmaji’s toum as a potent dipping sauce for chicken wings, tater tots, and Detroit-style pizza. I have ladled dollops of it on top of late-night Tostino’s pizza rolls (don’t judge), and I’ve scraped the last dregs of the container into a bowl of eggs before I scrambled them. A little bit goes a long, long way. 

Even within the garlicky landscape of my overall diet, Shawarmaji’s toum stands in a class of its own. Abutaha, who lived in Jordan for 20 years before moving to the Bay Area in 2011, explains that the version he makes is what people in Jordan would call “Syrian toum”—the most old-school, traditional version you can find, essentially. (Within the Arab world, the consensus is that toum originated in Syria, Abutaha says.) There are only four ingredients: garlic, canola oil, salt, and lemon juice. Abutaha puts everything in a giant pot and whirs it together with an immersion blender until it emulsifies into a sauce that’s roughly analogous to Spanish aioli. 

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The garlic, of course, is key. According to Abutaha, intense garlickiness is one of the hallmarks of Jordanian cooking, which often features garlic that’s smashed and added to a dish raw for a sharper, more pungent effect than in other garlic-heavy cuisines. For the toum, Abutaha uses a whopping 18 pounds of peeled garlic cloves to make a single (46-quart) batch. (By my calculations, that's something like half a head of garlic you're eating in every little eight-ounce tub.) And then he goes through multiple batches in the course of a week. 

The end result is about as pure a distillation of garlic flavor as you can find—potent enough to make your eyes water and overwhelm your tastebuds. It’s not subtle. It’s not for everyone. Abutaha recalls that one early customer who wound up leaving a one-star Yelp review: Apparently, they were shocked that their shawarma wrap had any garlic at all.

A hand dipping a sliced shawarma wrap into white garlic sauce.
The toum is the ideal dip for shawarma and french fries—and any number of other foods. (Rawan Elhalaby)

Mostly, though, customers have embraced the toum. Abutaha says he opened Shawarmaji because he wanted to help introduce Bay Area diners to traditional Jordanian foods and flavors. But he isn’t a purist. After all, the practice of putting toum on anything and everything is well established in Jordan, too, Abutaha says. Eating toum with french fries “has been a thing” for as long as he can remember; there are entire restaurants built around that theme. Most typically, the sauce is eaten with chicken—any preparation of chicken, well beyond shawarma and kebabs. In Jordan, Abutaha says, even the Popeyes and KFC outlets serve their fried chicken with a side of toum.

Here in the Bay Area, I'm not alone in exploring the versatility of toum. Abutaha says he’s had customers post pictures of tacos and burritos that they’ve spiked with toum. And he thinks the sauce is particularly delicious slathered on top of a burger patty—there’s a garlic mayo that comes by default on the burgers at Trueburger in Oakland, for instance, that Abutaha says “kind of gives [him] that toum feeling.”

All I know is that I need to head back to Shawarmaji with the quickness: There's a fried chicken dinner with my name on it this weekend, and I already know what condiment I can't do without.