Saigon, Berlin, Halifax, Mexico city, and Istanbul… What do these cities have in common? All of them harbour a love for the world famous döner kebab sandwich. Istanbul has no choice, as it is the place where the Ottoman gastronomy dish, the döner kebab, became famous; a hearty sandwich that would travel the world and be the answer to many hungry and hurried people in many countries of the globe.
Did you say döner kebab? In the most part of the world’s large modern cities, the name evokes a small pita sandwich filled with marinated shaved beef or chicken meat, with salad and some condiments. This archetypal small pita sandwich is found in many forms in today’s small everyday restaurant scene. One may think of the Arabic shawarma sandwich, or the Greek gyros sandwich; In reality they are all related by a common origin.
Today, in the 2020’s decade, the döner kebab is an established part of world culture. The road traveled by this trusty dish has been a long one. It can be traced back to the Turkish city of Bursa.
According to the most accepted story, claimed by Yavuz İskenderoğlu is that in the 1850’s, his grandfather had he idea of roasting lamb vertically. The resulting texture and taste of the meat was very much appreciated by people in Bursa and beyond, making the dish travel in the Ottoman Empire. This claim is refuted by an other story that stipulates that the dish was instead first cooked in the town of Kastamonu, by a man named Hamdi Usta, in the 1830’s
Today still, people who go to Bursa can try the Iskender kebab, a variety served atop a pide which is a turkish dish comparable to a pizza. There are more than a dozen different styles of diner kebab today in Turkey and even more around the world.
The döner kebab traveled to Greece as early as the 1920’s. Over there, it became what is known today as the gyros, using the same root greek word meaning to gyrate. In Lebanon, the Arab variation of the döner was being served as of the 1930’s. It is the origin of what is known today as the shawarma, which in it’s literal sense simply refers to a serving of grilled meats.
Once the döner started it’s nomadic life, it came back to Turkey through a small 20 seat restaurant. In Istanbul, Beyti Güler, a restaurateur, popularized the döner kebab by offering a quality version in his restaurant. His small eatery hosted journalists, politicians, and famously offered the catering to Air Force One when President Nixon visited Turkey. The Beyti restaurant single handedly contributed to the popularization of the döner kebab.
It was only when the döner kebab traveled to Germany, where there is a very sizeable Turkish population, that the döner became what we know today. In 1972, Kadir Nurman, a native of Istanbul who Immigrated to Berlin, held a fast food stand next to a train station. Although the döner kebab was served as early as 1969 in Germany, Kadir Nurman was the first to transform the dish into it’s present popular form.
Kadir Nurman watched countless travellers stop in a hurry, in need of a quick transportable meal. He thus started selling his döner in a pita bread. The grilled meats, coupled with lettuce, peppers and onions proved to be a success. Indeed, the sandwich form became so popular that it has now become ubiquitous to Germany’s largest cities. Actually, the döner is today considered by many Berliners to be one of Berlin’s most typical foods.
The döner kebab then went on to conquer the rest of the world. By the mid seventies it was sold in London, Paris, Mexico and New-York, amongst many others. It is through that connection that we can find the döner kebab in it’s sandwich form in Istanbul today.
When in Turkey, the döner pita sandwich is available everywhere. In the vicinity of Taksim Square, Kasap Döner is an example of the typical döner stands of today. It boasts absolutely huge beef, mutton and chicken kebabs, slowly gyrating and grilling along a pedestrian street. The skilled döner roaster carefully scarves the mea into paper thin slices, accentuating the texture of the sandwich. It is actually quite an appetizing sight to behold.
In Istanbul, however, to truly taste the perfectly authentic döner kebab, one must have a seat at Beyti. This legendary restaurant, member of the prestigious Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, still serves all sorts of delicious kebabs, among which, you can choose the döner kebab in it’s original form. It is also a perfect place to truly taste the much larger Splendor of Turkish gastronomy.
The döner kebab truly has traveled many roads. In an ironic turn of events, a Greek immigrant to the Canadian city of Halifax made it the official food of the city. Peter Gamoulakos opened The King of Donairs in Halifax in 1973. The spelling of döner was modified to donair both to reflect the Canadian pronunciation as well as the slight variation in it’s recipe. The meat was slightly changed by using ground beef, and he personally invented the donair sauce, which gave its a distinct flavour.
The donair was so popular that it is still spelled this way almost throughout English Canada. The King of Donairs went on to become a franchise and even part of Atlantic Canada’s popular culture. In 2015, the city installed the donair as Halifax’s official food.
Today, the döner is probably one of the most celebrated sandwiches around the world. It is served in Lagos, Hanoï, Jakarta, Tokyo, Rio, and all around the major cities of most of the world. This is what certifies that the döner kebab of today truly is the sultan of sandwiches.
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