Lion Dance Cafe’s Cumin-Spiced Shawarma Is a Vegan Delight

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Close-up shot of the cross section of Lion Dance Cafe's seitan-based vegan shawarama.
The cumin-spiced seitan shawarma is a collaboration between Shawarmaji and Lion Dance Cafe. (Lion Dance Cafe)

Ever since it opened late last year, downtown Oakland’s Shawarmaji has built up a faithful following with its crisp-edged, potently garlicky chicken and lamb—all cooked slowly on a traditional vertical shawarma spit. Now, chef-owner Mohammed Abutaha wants to share the love. Specifically, he wants to give other talented chefs the opportunity to tinker with his shawarma spit—a relative rarity in Bay Area kitchens. 

So, starting today, Shawarmaji will launch a series of guest chef collaborations. First on the docket: CY Chia and Shane Stanbridge of Lion Dance Cafe, Oakland’s vegan Singaporean hot spot. For today’s debut, they’ve collaborated with Abutaha to create a true rarity here in the Bay Area: a seitan-based vegan shawarma that’s loaded onto, and sliced off of, the vertical spit—the same technique you’d normally only see used with a shawarma shop’s traditional meat cone. 

“Pre-vegan, I used to love shawarma. It’s so fatty and well-spiced, juicy and delicious,” Chia says. “So we wanted something that could eat that way—the same fatty, juicy, super-savory taste.”

The seitan shawarma drips with an orange-yellow soy milk and mala spice emulsion when it's mounted on the spit.
The seitan shawarma is layered with a soy milk and mala spice emulsion when it's mounted on the spit. (Mohammed Abutaha)

Creating a seitan-based shawarma that could be mounted onto a shawarma spit was largely a technical challenge, Stanbridge explains. Because seitan cooks at a much higher temperature than meat—and dries out when cooked for too long in a dry environment—Stanbridge and Chia decided to fully cook the seitan before finishing it on the spit. It’s a laborious process: The seitan gets sliced, fried, smoked and braised before it even arrives at Shawarmaji, and then it’s layered with a soy milk and mala spice emulsion to help keep things moist while the shawarma finishes cooking on the vertical spit.

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The result is a distinctly Chinese-Singaporean take on vegan shawarma that eats a little bit like the cumin lamb skewers that you might find in Xinjiang, China—lots of cumin, Sichuan peppercorn, doubanjiang and fermented black bean. Abutaha and his crew slice the shawarma off the spit and wrap it inside of flatbread along with tahini, pickles, and Lion Dance Cafe’s own signature spicy-smoky sambal belacan.

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“It’s definitely not lacking in flavor,” Stanbridge says.  

Shane Stanbridge (left) and CY Chia pose in front of the chalkboard menu at an earlier pop-up incarnation of their restaurant.
Shane Stanbridge (left) and CY Chia at an earlier pop-up incarnation of Lion Dance Cafe. (Dana M. Chang)

Since it opened last fall, mid-pandemic, Lion Dance Cafe has been one of the toughest tickets in Oakland, requiring prospective shaobing sandwich eaters to be incredibly quick on the draw when trying to snag an online preorder. The Shawarmaji pop-up represents a rare opportunity, then, to try Chia and Stanbridge’s food without having to plan for it several days in advance. The vegan shawarma ($10) will be available at Shawarmaji on Wednesday—and, potentially, on future Wednesdays—on a first-come, first-served basis during both lunch and dinner, but in limited quantities. The one seitan “meat cone” that Chia and Stanbridge will prepare for each pop-up is probably good for about 60 to 80 sandwiches, the chefs say.    

Lion Dance Cafe’s vegan shawarma will be available as a special at Shawarmaji, at 2123 Franklin Street in Oakland, on Wednesday, April 14, during the restaurant’s regular hours 11 a.m.–10 p.m.—or whenever it sells out.