The scent of curry infused chicken sizzling on a flat top is one of the essential smells of New York City. But many of the men and women standing beside the small (and sometimes very big) metal carts are nameless. In honor of The Five Days of Meat, we chatted with one of the city's most renowned street meat vendors, Freddy Zeideia, aka The King of Falafel & Shawarma. Here's the Vendy Award-winner on a typical day, his secret recipe, and belly-dancing with his customers.
How did you decide to open a falafel and shawarma stand?
I'm from Palestine, but I've been here since 1981. It was easy to find falafel and shwarma where I grew up in Ramallah. I drove a cab back in the 80's and the only place we went for falafel was Mamoun's and Jerusalem Falafel. Those were the only places to get good falafel at the time. When I quit driving a cab, we would have to go out to Jersey or to Atlantic Avenue. I thought, why don't I just open one? I opened in April 2002.
What does it take to run a food cart? What's your daily routine like?
A typical day starts at 5 a.m., getting the rice ready, starting to make the falafel, and setting the shawarma. Everything we do is from scratch: white sauce, tahini, hot sauce. I make my own everything. We get out of the commissary at 10, customers start coming at 11. We close at 10 p.m. Sometimes I run out of food early. So, whichever comes first.
What goes into making your shawarma? Whose recipe is it?
I have two shawarmas: chicken and beef. The chicken has a nice curry flavor and the beef has 12 spices. It's the same I used to eat back home. It took me about four years to perfect the recipe. We slice the meat, marinate the meat, and piece by piece we build it up. Sometimes we put vegetables on top — a tomato or an orange, just to break the color.
So what are the 12 spices?
The 12 spices are onion, garlic, cumin, ginger, cloves and allspice. The others give it a little twist.
And, how much of it do you sell?
Between both locations, about 120 pounds of meat a day. I'm generous with my meat.
Does all of your your food taste like back home or did you have to adapt some of your recipes?
The falafel and shawarma tastes exactly like it does back home. The chicken and rice is a little Americanized. The chicken my mom and I would cook was cut up and put in the oven. Commercially that doesn't work, so we get boneless thighs but use the same spices.
Where did you learn to cook?
I learned from my mom, from her cooking… and in 2007 I went to culinary school just to get my certificate.
What's your favorite order when you're working?
For me, it was always the chicken and shawarma sandwiches — but not as big as I serve them. Sometimes I mix it up with the chicken and the shawarma. These days, I don't eat it that much. I usually wait until I go home and cook.
What do you cook at home?
At home there's always a Middle Eastern flavor [in my cooking] but it doesn't have to be Middle Eastern food. I just look at my fridge and see what vegetables I have and cook with that.
What's the funniest thing that's happened at the cart? Or most memorable?
There's not much funny stuff that you see — it's what you do. We always play music and get everyone started belly dancing with me.... During the 2004 blackout I had a line down the block. I was the only one in the area that was open. By 8:30, I only had chicken and pita. That was your choice.
This interview has been edited for length and style.
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