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.
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.