Why you should care
Because every city needs some decent street meat.
In recent years, officials in Moscow have gone to great lengths to recast their once-dreary city as an unmistakably European metropolis. Pedestrian zones, green spaces and bike lanes have sprouted throughout the Russian capital, eagerly embraced by a comfortable new middle class.
But one European staple has always peppered its street corners and walkways: the harshly lit kebab, or shawarma, joints that satisfy throngs of partyers, lunch breakers and other unassuming locals seeking a fast-food fix. When I lived in Moscow, I frequented my neighborhood stand often enough that one seller, knowing my aversion to dill — an unfortunately common fixture there — would produce a bag of plain cabbage whenever he saw me approach.
Did that charming gesture distract me from noticing whether he’d changed gloves — wait, was he even wearing gloves — or to wonder when he’d last cleaned his knives? Looking back, I’m lucky I never suffered more than a minor stomachache. Especially because:
Federal health officials in Moscow recently found sanitary violations in 100 percent of shawarma stands they inspected.
Around 54 percent of the 251 stands were found to harbor traces of various bacteria, mostly Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. Particularly problematic, says consumer-protection watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, are grimy physical spaces, nonexistent water supplies and workers who lack even “a basic knowledge of sanitary culture.” As a result of their inspections, officials ordered the temporary closure of 112 locations, destroyed some 1.8 tons of meat and levied nearly $40,000 in administrative fines against sellers. By comparison, an analysis of New York City’s food carts last year found that 35 percent of the vendors had no health violations.
Street meat of questionable provenance should hardly surprise anyone who’s roamed around hungry through the streets of London, Paris, Berlin — or just about any other city in Europe, where it’s better known by its Turkish name, doner kebab. Outright sanitary violations aside, the negative health effects have long been apparent: Last year, the European Parliament only narrowly defeated a proposal to ban phosphates, the additive necessary to keep shawarma meat juicy, in a move that prompted some officials to boast they’d “saved” the continent’s favorite late-night snack.
Nor is it even the first time Moscow’s faced the same problem. Two years ago, the city’s commerce chief threatened to clear the streets of shawarma stands following similar sanitary concerns, though his pledge of “ridding the streets” of the snack did little to dampen consumer enthusiasm.
But if most European capitals have other forms of popular street food to fall back on, Moscow doesn’t. According to local restaurateur Ivan Shishkin, the city still lacks a robust street food culture — which, before the appearance of Middle Eastern immigrants in the 1990s, amounted to “grannies selling puff pastries out of little boxes.” Neither the harsh climate nor increasingly stringent government regulation of public spaces has helped. Street vendors of various stripes have been effectively banished en masse in recent years, part of a citywide crackdown on small-time businesses. “Currently, they’re refusing not only to allow them to develop,” Shishkin says, “but to even appear in the first place.”
Still, shawarma occupies a special place in the collective Russian psyche (or gut). They’re serious enough about it that lawmakers from Moscow and St. Petersburg — where it’s called shaurma and shaverma, respectively — even sparred last month over which city’s is tastier. Either way, embattled local vendors are no doubt hoping people will still have something to argue about.