History of takeaway food - the Kebab
By Kevin Moyse
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As a preamble to this month’s History of Takeaway Food article, that’s not a bad analogy because if someone said the word ‘kebab’ to you, these images would spring to pretty much everyone’s mind.
But a kebab means many things to many people. To Americans, a kebab with no other description refers to shish kebab cooked on a skewer, whereas in Europe it refers to doner kebab, which is sliced meat served in a pitta. In the Middle East, however, kebab refers to meat that is cooked over or next to flames; these can be large or small cuts of meat, or even ground meat; it may be served on plates, in sandwiches, or in bowls. Indeed there are more variations of kebab than you would believe, spread across the world from the Far East to the west coast of the US, and from northern Africa to northern Europe. Every one has its own little twist on the idea, its own trademark difference.
But if you’re in the UK, and you’re looking for a takeaway kebab, it’s a doner you’re talking about.
The origins of the kebab, like many of our favourite dishes, are mostly lost in the mists of time, but you can find references to food cooked and served like all modern day varieties of kebab as far back as the 8th century BC. The oldest known mention of the word ‘kebab’ referring to food can be found in Turkish writings dated around 1377. The word ‘kebab’ or ‘kebap’ can be roughly translated as ‘frying’ or ‘burning’. Another tradition has it that the dish was invented by soldiers in medieval times who would skewer meat on their swords and cook it over a flame out in the field.
The doner was originally a horizontal stack of meat rather than vertical. Grilling meat horizontally on skewers has a long history in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, in 19th century Bursa in Turkey İskender Efendi claimed that "he and his grandfather had the idea of roasting the lamb vertically rather than horizontally, and invented for that purpose a vertical mangal". Since then, Hacı İskender is known as the inventor of Turkish doner kebap (kebab).
‘Doner kebab’ translates literally as ‘rotating roast’ and is sliced lamb, chicken or beef slowly roasted on a vertical spit. Most popularly served in pitta bread with salad, it is also served in a dish with salad and French fries. In the UK it has become part of the culture of nightlife, as can be evidenced by the increased trade which most kebab houses see after the pubs and clubs have closed.
As takeaways go, the doner kebab is unique in that it has become part of the tradition of the night out. A far cry indeed from soldiers cooking on the battlefield. Although depending on where you go for your nights out, perhaps not so different after all…