In the US we tend to think of a “kebab” as a grilled food on a stick: sizzling sliced of red meat and onions over the charcoals, vegetable kebabs, Hawaiian kebabs with speared pineapples and fish. In most of Western Europe it’s sliced meat in a pita. But in Turkey you will encounter plenty of things called a kebab that look nothing like what I described above. The meat may not be skewered; there may not even be a grill; there’s often not a pita. In fact, some Turkish kebabs, like Tesli Kebabi, come in a baked clay bowl and look more like a stew. Others, like the simit kebab, are sliced and wrapped in lavash under a dressing of sour yogurt.
When you think of a kebab, the image that comes to mind is probably that of Shish kebabs (Çöp Şiş or şiş kebap in Turkish) or shashlik (mixed meat and vegetables skewered and grilled). But those are only two variations of kebabs. Kebab itself actually refers to a type of meat preparation – usually.
“Kebab” style meat – sliced meat layered on an upright spittle, then slowly rotated until cooked through, and carved off in thin slices – was invented by a Busa native named Iskender in the late 19th century. Kebabs can also refer to chunks of meat skewered and grilled, or a meat stew. Kebabs are traditionally made from lamb, but you can also find chicken kebabs, beef kebabs, and mixed meat and vegetable kebabs. That is to say – there’s no one all-encompassing definition of a kebab. Each region has a few famous varieties; we recommend you try them all to determine for yourself what a kebab actually and truly is.
Some of our favorites from around Turkey:
Simit Kebabs: The one pictured is only one variation of this family of lavash-wrapped bulgar and lamb kebabs, usually served with savory red pepper, mint, and sliced tomatoes. It’s unclear where the simit kebab first originated – at present there are Gazientep (SE Turkey) Greek, Armenian and other varieties. Some recipes mix in pine nuts; others pistachios; others no nuts at all. You can dinf one Turkish recipe here.
Testi Kebab: One of the most famous dishes from Nevisehir (in the Cappadocia region), Tesli Kebab is made by cooking rice, vegetables and meat inside a baked clay pot over fire. Testi kebab can also be found in the Mid-Western Black Sea region. The pot is sealed with bread dough or tin foil during cooking, and broken when serving. It is a savory and exceedingly flavorful dish, as the spices and juices seep into every morsel of food during the cooking. Though you can sometimes find tesli kebabs in other parts of Turkey, we believe they are best eaten after a long day of exploring Cappadocia’s caves. To see how a testi kebab is made, watch this short video here or here.
Beyti Kebabs (pictured above): With melted cheese and lavash wrapped around mild ground meat, these are almost like lavash cheeseburgers (and as such are sure to be a hit with kids who are picky eaters). The sliced kebab often come artfully arranged around tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, and a serving of pilaf.
Döner Kebab: Commonly known as the Gyro at Greek restaurants, and simple kebab in many parts of Europe with large Turkish populations. Doner here refers to a type of meat preparation – layers of lean and fat meat are skewerd on a roatating spit and then slowly cooked. The doner master slices off long thin pieces to make iskender (doner over bread with tomato sauce and yogurt), doner pilaf (doner with rice), dürüm (doner wrapped in lavash, gobit doner, or another doner dish. Across Turkey you will find many variations of the doner kebab with a huge variety in terms of ingredients and bread casing. Unlike Gyros, however, doner kebabs rarely come with yogurt, and are generally wrapped in a lavash or baked yeasty bun instead of a pita bread. One of our favorites is gobit doner.
What’s your favorite Turkish kebab, or best kebab joint in your town?
For a longer list of kebabs (to whet your appetite and help you decipher the menu at new Turkish restaurants), peruse this repository here.