In Turkish – Ottoman Cuisine, there are dishes and meals one can have at home, and there are those which can only be had “outside”. Some meals are either very hard or near impossible to prepare at home, requiring a set of skills and expertise. Such dishes usually can only be prepared for a large group of people. They also require special utensils such as tandoor, fire-pit, or contraptions like the Doner Kebab’s cooker. These are banquet type foods.
In the last decade, especially in Europe, Turkish Food has become synonymous with Doner Kebab, which is simply called Döner, in Turkey. Its versatility in its presentation has led to its adaptation to fast food. Having less fat than many other meat fast foods, and the possibility to have it without bread have worked as an advantage to raise its popularity.
Döner itself doesn’t get much negative criticism, other than its side dishes it is served with. Then, whose is this magic food? Greeks call it Gyros, Lebanese have their Shawarma, Mexicans have Al Pastor. Yet, these appropriations all depend on hearsay. The only documentation comes from Evliya Celebi’s Seyahatname (Book of Travels), written in 10 volumes between 1630 and 1672.
One of the interesting meals Evliya Celebi relates in his book is a kind of kebab Tatars make in their winter meetings. “Lamb meat slices are skewered onto an iron kebab shish, according to their size, to make a shape thinner on either end and thick in the middle, and they cook it on hot flames.”
This is a clear description of a Doner Kebab, however primitive it may sound. Furthermore, we understand that Evliya Celebi did not see this kind of food anywhere else in his travels, from his interest in this particular food: Priscilla Mary Işın writes in her book, “Osmanli Mutfak Imparatorlugu”, that even though there are hundreds of food names in Evliya Celebi’s Seyahatname, few have any description of their ingredients and cooking technique.
From this point on, the ingredients and cooking technique starts to change in descriptions. Evliya Celebi has not indicated if the skewer was horizontal or vertical. In Erzurum, Turkey, there is a type of Doner Kebab, which is cooked horizontally, named Cag Kebab. Other regions also attribute Doner to themselves giving names, such as Hamdi Usta of Kastamonu, yet none of these go earlier than Evliya Celebi.
In recent history, Doner has been tried with chicken meat, fish and even a vegetarian version using only vegetables, but none of them were accepted as much as the regular Doner. There is also a type which has mince meat as the main ingredient, but its taste cannot compete against proper meat Doner.
Slowly cooking in front of open flame and cut in thin strips, Doner takes its unique taste from its cooking technique. The Doner Chefs, who are the ones preparing the Doner before its cooked are as much important as the chef cooking and cutting it. A large Doner can take up to 4 – 5 hours to stack. It is a demanding task which requires skill and experience. The ingredients which are placed between the meat stacks are kept secret by each company as their trade secrets. Because, these ingredients are as important as the quality of the meat used in preparing the Doner.
Presentation also varies. Portion on a plate may come plain or with sides of onions ground in sumac, rice, grilled green chilies and tomatoes, fried potato, a variety of fresh, grilled or boiled vegetables, pickled green peppers and cucumbers, or with any combination of these sides.
If eaten as fast food, they can come rolled in wraps, in bread or pita, plain or with some of the sides listed above.
There used to be a discussion on whether coal or wood flame cooked Doner was better. Yet, in modern times, almost all Doner are cooked on gas flame.
Taste? Depends greatly on the “Usta” preparing and cooking it.
Iskender is a special presentation of Doner Kebab. Special Pide (Turkish pita, which is thicker and softer than pita) at the bottom, Doner Kebab on top with a generous portion of tomato sauce finished with a good splash of hot butter.
Iskender takes its name from its creator, Iskender Efendi, who lived in late 19th century in Bursa, Turkey.
The Berliner Doner
Developed and became popular in Berlin, Germany, The Berliner Doner differs in its serving style. Its popularity is attributed to Kadir Nurman, who owned a restaurant close to a busy central train station in West Berlin. Primarily a street food, the target was the fast moving populace, who wanted a quick but hearty bite.
The Berliner has a distinctive style with abundant salad, vegetables, and sauces with Turkish Doner, wrapped in a flat bread.
Doner And Kebab Shops Around The World
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