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19th February 2024

Rusholme’s finest sandwich is the Kurdish shawarma at Al-Zain

This Curry Mile favourite serves shawarma and beautifully fresh salad in freshly baked bread, and its affordable food is some of Manchester’s best
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Rusholme’s finest sandwich is the Kurdish shawarma at Al-Zain
X tends to the chicken spit at Al-Zain

Rusholme’s Wilmslow Road, more famously known as the Curry Mile, defies any kind of simple description. Elegant, longstanding curry houses and Middle Eastern eateries stand alongside shisha bars and decrepit chicken shops on this buzzing strip, a bright spot in South Manchester’s otherwise dreary landscape.

The Mile began to form in the 1950s to serve increasing numbers of South Asian textile workers and was dominated by Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani cuisine. The road has been home to some of the very finest Asian food in Britain ever since, and recent years have seen more and more Middle Eastern influence. It’s bizarre then, that many UoM students only experience Wilmslow Road from a bus window, as a feature of their daily commute.

Al-Zain, a small Kurdish Shawarma restaurant at 75 Wilmslow Road, is a stand-out gem; a little slice of everything special about this corner of Manchester. The food here is of absolutely no relation to the alcohol-induced döner kebab experience; sinister, grey cylinders of ‘meat’, dry bread, and sludgy garlic sauce included. On the contrary, Al-Zain is defined by its freshness.

Walk through the front door, bide your time in the ever-present queue, and you’ll come face-to-face with a counter full of vegetables, freshly cut and pickled. We’re not limited to lettuce and onion here; there’s carrot and cabbage, tomato and cucumber, olives, and an assortment of pickles – most sprinkled with sumac. Sat alongside are bowls of hummus, garlic, and chilli sauces. Cast your eyes upward then to the two enormous spits of meat, one lamb and one chicken; both glistening as they rotate slowly.

Al-Zain restaurant, at 75 Wilmslow Road

It’s at this point you’ll probably spot either Jiyar or Nwenar, the two men running Al-Zain. Nwenar wields an almost comically large sword and sharpens it regularly and flamboyantly, before slicing off thin slivers of chicken and lamb. The meat on the spit is prepared by a man Jiyar refers to only as ‘The Chef’, a specialist who seasons the meats and leaves them to marinate overnight before assembling them onto the rotating spit 24 hours later. I am yet to meet him.

Jiyar tells me every single spice and seasoning used in the restaurant is imported from “back home” – that home being Kurdistan. Both Jiyar and Nwenar grew up in Chamchamal, a Kurdish town in Northern Iraq, and even worked together in the shawarma business there for six years in the 2010s. That identity is core to the restaurant: all the men behind the counter wear pendants shaped in the outline of Kurdistan, and Jiyar is clear that the culinary methods used in Al-Zain are such because “that’s how we do it back home.” 

This is most evident in the commitment to freshly baked bread for every individual order. While Nwenar tends to the rotating meats, Jiyar works naan dough on the back of his palm, not unlike a pizza chef, before draping the dough over a Gaddi cushion and firing it into the tandoor oven. It reemerges a minute later, bubbled and crisp, and is passed over to Nwenar to be filled to the specification of the customer. Fresh batches of Samoon bread, an Iraqi speciality, appear from the restaurant’s oven at a regular pace too. For £3.99, the bread, meat, and toppings of your choice are wrapped together into what is surely one of Manchester’s finest sandwiches. 

A naan shawarma wrap being assembled at Al-Zain

As is the case in most excellent restaurants, there isn’t much else on the menu. The fresh dough can be stretched a little wider for pizzas and fatayer, a pide-like stuffed flatbread, both of which can be topped with usual fare as well as any of the meats and salads on offer for sandwiches. And while Wilmslow Road might be somewhat untapped by the student population, the delights of Al-Zain are not unknown to South Manchester locals. The small interior heaves with people at peak hours, and our interview had to be rescheduled when 2:30 on a Monday afternoon was not nearly as quiet as this reporter assumed it would be.

Both Jiyar and Nwenar speak of a strong community environment around Al-Zain too, and most of their regulars are now friends. “The favourite part,” Jiyar says, “is just serving customers with a happy, smiley face… if you can make someone happy, then you’ll be happy as well.” Between the staff, seven languages are spoken, and they say everything from Arabic to Persian and Turkish is used with customers daily. 

February promises weeks of sluggish bus journeys, endless rain, and insipid meal deals. For the same price as a wet sarnie and crisps is a visit to Al-Zain. Carefully constructed, confidently informed by heritage, and affordable. Oh, and so very satisfying. 

Watch a new Mancunion & Fuse TV documentary on Al-Zain, featuring interviews with Jiyar and Nwenar and footage of the preparation process behind the Kurdish shawarma the restaurant is revered for. 

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