The doner kebab, or more properly the döner kebap, is a traditional Turkish dish. According to the Tureng Sözlük online Turkish Dictionary, 'kebap' simply means grilled or roasted meat, whilst 'döner' means 'revolving' or 'turning', and thus a döner kebap literally means 'revolving meat', in the same way as a döner kavsak is a roundabout, or a döner kapi is a revolving door. The meat revolves because it has been placed on a spit which turns round as the meat is cooked by a vertical charcoal grill, and the vertical arrangement is preferred because it facilitates basting the meat, thereby rendering it moist and tender. This concept is of course, not unique to Turkish cuisine, and is indeed common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, and the döner kebap has its counterpart in the Arabian shawarma and the Greek gyro. Neither is it the only method the Turks adopt to cook meat, and thus one can also find for example, the testi kebap, which is meat cooked in a sealed clay pot, and the sis kebap which is meat cooked on a skewer.
By tradition the meat is normally "milk fed lamb", although the Turks have of recent taken to cooking chicken in the same manner, whilst beef, mutton or goat is not unknown. But whether lamb, chicken or whatever, once cooked the meat is normally served with rice and/or salad, generally with an accompanying portion of pitta bread, or pide as it is known in Turkey.
By reputation the ultimate kebap is the Bursa or Iskender Kebap, named after one Mehmetoglu Iskender Efendi, a chef in the city of Bursa who created the dish in 1867. The Iskender or Alexander kebab uses only "lamb raised on the thyme-covered slopes of Mount Uludag" and is served on a base of diced pide or pitta bread, and then topped with tomato sauce and browned butter and served with a dollop of yogurt on the side.
It is however worth noting that the Turkish döner kebap is quite a different animal from the doner kebab that is prevalent throughout the West. Indeed the western doner kebab is said to have been born on the 2nd March 1971 at the Hasir Restaurant in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and to have been the invention of one Mahmut Aygun, otherwise known as the 'Kebab King', whose death was reported on the 20th January 2009.
The Aygun brothers Mahmut and Saim Aygun were Turkish immigrants who came to Berlin to cater for the many Turkish guest workers who lived in the area, and it was Mahmut who came up with the idea of slicing open a portion of warmed pitta bread and filling it with meat, salad and a garlic dressing and thereby created a dish that could be held in the hand and eaten anywhere. This innovation was copied by numerous other catering establishments across Berlin and the rest of Germany and eventually spread throughout Europe and beyond. However no matter how authentically Turkish the original doner kebab served by the Ayguns might have been, the subsequent copies were frequently modified to suit local tastes and the availability of ingredients, and therefore did not necessarily bear that much resemblance to the original Turkish dish. Indeed the Turks themselves do not regard the overwhelming majority of doner kebabs served as bearing any connection to what is served in their homeland, although they have taken note of Mahmut Aygun's innovation and have also adopted the practice of stuffing meat into a slice of pide bread, although they naturally call the result a döner sandviç.
Of course the doner kebab also reached the shores of the United Kingdom where it rapidly became a "post-pub favourite", being routinely purchased and consumed after a night of heavy drinking at the local public house. Over the years the British doner kebab has since attracted something of an unsavoury reputation as a grease laden monstrosity that is a threat to the public's well being. Indeed one Denise Thomas, the head of nutrition and dietetics at Portsmouth Hospitals Trust, once claimed that eating two kebabs a week constituted a fatal dose. Such an attitude would be puzzling to the average Turk since, theoretically speaking, a meal consisting of lean meat and salad vegetables thrust into a pocket of wholemeal pitta bread ought to be a relatively healthy dish.
However, as far as the British doner is concerned, the meat used in the average doner kebab tends to be processed meat especially manufactured for the purpose, rather than an actual cut of lamb fed on the slopes of the nearest mountainside, whilst the presence of the salad vegetables is rather counteracted by the practice of smothering the whole thing in chilli sauce, or some other similarly high fat dressing. Velis Doner Kebab Manufacturers, one of the biggest makers in the United Kingdom, took the trouble to explain that it manufactured its doner kebabs by taking lamb breasts and off cuts, sticking them in a mixer and producing "something like a meat emulsion" which was then rolled into small balls bound together with the membrane from the lamb cuts and then built up into a cone. As unappetising as that process might sound, it represents what, in British terms, is a high quality product, as other producers use cheaper meat, and then throw in the usual emulsifiers, rusk, and preservatives, thereby creating a high fat product that is almost guaranteed to render one's arteries unfit for purpose. Indeed, one doner kebab from Hampshire was recently measured as containing 140 grams of fat, being the calorific equivalent of an entire wine glass full of cooking oil.
One Simon Langley-Evans, a professor of human nutrition at the University of Nottingham, did suggest that it would be possible for individuals to select healthier kebabs, and even ask searching questions as to the provenance of the contents, however the problem was that "the majority of people who eat doner kebabs are somewhat inebriated and so are not best placed to make decisions about healthy eating". Unfortunately inducing cardiac arrest in its consumers is not the only crime perpetrated by British kebab sellers, due to the unhygienic practices allegedly prevalent in the industry. Research carried out by the British Food Standards Agency in 2006 found that 18.5% of doner kebabs posed a "significant" threat to public health, whilst another 0.8% posed an "imminent" threat.
- Turkish Döner Kebap (Gyro)
- Tureng Sözlük, Turkish – English Dictionary with Audio Pronunciation
- Berlin - the real birthplace of the doner kebab, 22 May 2006
- Bibi van der, Zee Kebab, anyone?, The Guardian, Friday 6 October 2006
- Mike Swain, Eating two kebabs a week could kill you, Daily Mirror, 15/05/2008
The man who invented the doner kebab has died, Daily Telegraph, 20 Jan 2009
- How unhealthy is a doner kebab, BBC News, 21 January 2009