Five of dozens, because let’s face it, Turkey is the world’s top kebab destination. Here are five must-try kebabs and one fun fact to know about the Turkish staple.

Ozcan Yildirim slices off a piece of a cag kebab at Sehzade Cag Kebap shop in Sirkeci, Istanbul.
Ozcan Yildirim slices off a piece of a cag kebab at Sehzade Cag Kebap shop in Sirkeci, Istanbul. (Monique Jaques/Corbis / Getty Images)

Salt, fat, acid, heat. Chef Samin Nosrat breaks down what makes food taste good on her Netflix show named after these same essential components. And it hit me a few days after I saw the first episode, as I passed a doner shop in Istanbul’s popular university district of Besiktas, that those notes are what make the mouth water just before you bite into a kebab.

So if you live to eat or travel for food, Turkey should be on your itinerary if you want to become a more discerning consumer of the ubiquitous kebab.

Locals often confuse the Adana kebab with the Urfa kebab, which is less spicy. Since hot chillies are not commonly used in Turkey, waiters are used to the FAQ:
Locals often confuse the Adana kebab with the Urfa kebab, which is less spicy. Since hot chillies are not commonly used in Turkey, waiters are used to the FAQ: "which one is the less spicy one?" (Getty Images)

1. The land of the kebab

So the history of the kebab goes way back. And to many different places (which explains the various spellings from kabob to kebap).

“The latest excavations show that the first archetype of kebab-related ruins dated back to 17th Century BC in Greece,” Dr Burak Mil, who heads the tourism and hotel management department at Istanbul Arel University, tells TRT World. “So, the kebab may be regarded as part of a common culture in the Mediterranean and Middle East region.”

An exhaustive list of all kebabs that are made or originated in Turkey or the Ottoman territories would be too long to read. But there are a few meaty wonders which are famous enough that a well-fed global wanderer would have come across some iteration on a plate or a blog. 

2. It may have all started with the Cag kebab 

It is not very easy to ascertain which is the “original Turkish kebab”, but Dr Burak Mil, who heads the tourism and hotel management department at Istanbul Arel University, thinks it might be the Cag [pronounced Cha-a kebap].

“I think Cag kebab is one of the very original Turkish kebabs. Made from lamb meat, the Cag kebab looks like a horizontal doner kebab. It is originally associated with Erzurum in the eastern Anatolian region of Turkey,” Mil tells TRT World.

It is quite possible the prolific 17th-century traveller Evliya Celebi might have been talking about the Cag kebab when he mentioned skewered meat in his culture epic Seyahatname. And since he did live for a few years in Erzurum...

The Cag is made with slivers of slightly fatty lamb, mutton or goat meat marinated for 24 hours in salt, black pepper and sweet onion before it is cooked skewered on a horizontal spit. 

The meat is sliced off the rotisserie onto a skewer, juicy pink on one side and caramelised on the other, and is served with lavas (pronounced la-vash) or flat bread and grilled green pepper. 

“It is a very difficult task to describe the [first bite]. The Cag kebab has a special taste, flavour, and smell. I think nobody can describe it. You just feel it in all the cells of your body,” Abdurrahman Kara from Dicle University tells TRT World

Kara, previously a researcher in the Eastern Anatolia Agricultural Research Institute, is from Erzurum’s Tortum district, which he says is one of the places which the Cag is thought to originate from.

That cloud of smoky umaminess which serves as a giant signpost for Sehzade Cag Kebab in the busy alleys of Sirkeci, in Istanbul, (taste-tested by a fussy Pakistani mum) could turn hesitant vegetarians into rip-roaring carnivores and intermittent meat-eaters into full-time devotees. So be the powers of meat.

A man works in the meat refrigerator of Yuzevler restaurant which is known for its Adana kebab in Adana, Turkey. December 2, 2004.
A man works in the meat refrigerator of Yuzevler restaurant which is known for its Adana kebab in Adana, Turkey. December 2, 2004. (Yoray Liberman / Getty Images)

3. Adana about you, but this is the Wonderwall of kebabs…

Every kebapci (kebab maker or kebab restaurant) does their cover version of the Adana kebab. 

But the kebab is much harder to nail than the Oasis hit which every guy learns hoping to get the girls (pro-tip: high school girls are not so easy to impress). 

Adana is the first step on Turkey’s east-Mediterranean kebab belt (Adana, Mersin and Tarsus). 

The Adana is made of lamb meat which is finely minced using a massive zirh blade (or at times two knives), and some tail fat. Salt and Turkish red pepper flakes are worked into the mince carefully so the texture doesn’t turn to mush. The kebab is deftly shaped around a flat skewer before it is cooked on coal.

While char matters, it is the tail fat in the kebab that coats the palate. The fat is also what ties the meat to the flatbread which is used to sop it up, as a plate or wrap. 

This is where acid truly kicks in, from the sumac and onions inside the wrap or the pepper lacing the kebap. 

Although known as the spicy Turkish kebab, for those used to Southeast Asian or Mexican chillies, the Adana is not tongue-burning, Scoville-topping hot. 

And according to chefs like Musa Dagdeviren, the kebabs from this region were never meant to be too hot, because kebab chefs want to be true to the flavour of the meat.

A mixed grill plate of lamb chops, cubes of meat, skewered minced meat, chicken wings, and minced meat with pistachios on skewers.
A mixed grill plate of lamb chops, cubes of meat, skewered minced meat, chicken wings, and minced meat with pistachios on skewers. (Getty Images)

4. Homer said it first 

Not the Simpson, but the Greek literary giant Homer, who wrote the Odyssey, apparently alluded to the sis [pronounced shish] kebab in his works. 

In —  comparatively —  more modern times, Ottoman soldiers are thought to have taken to a more utilitarian method of cooking cubes of meat in one fell swoop, spearing them on their swords, and so evolved the shish through history.

Smaller pieces of meat are pounded, marinated in salt, pepper, olive oil, at times lemon, and sometimes yogurt before they are hoisted (it sounds more military than “threaded”) onto flat skewers. 

After two years in Istanbul, it seems there are no hard and fast rules for the shish marinade. But this is one kebab which is very easy to find in chicken; even though Turkey is an avidly meat-loving country where, anecdotally, poultry has been confused as a vegetarian preference.

The Hakiki Iskender Kebap restaurant ahead of the arrival of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an AK Party election rally on June 23, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Hakiki Iskender Kebap restaurant ahead of the arrival of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an AK Party election rally on June 23, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

5. Butter me up, Iskender 

If you go on the province of Bursa’s tourism website, it unabashedly declares the Iskender —  also known as the Bursa kebab —  the best kebab in the country. 

It officially lays claim to inventing the genius vertical doner, attributing it to Mehmetoglu Iskender Effendi, a Bursa city butcher from the 19th Century. 

Kara tells TRT World that Mehmet Effendi's invention essentially turned the Cag sideways and served it up with yoghurt and butter.

The family of Iskender takes his legacy so seriously that they have trademarked many iterations of “Iskender kebabi”.

What’s considered so great about roasting meat on a vertical spit?

Self-basting. 

The juices of the marinade and fat just run through the layers and layers of quality lamb meat.

Slices of this rich meat are served on leavened bread called pide [pronounced pee-dey] which is dense enough to absorb what follows —  a generous topping of sauce made with fresh tomatoes and butter. And then drizzled with, wait for it, sizzling melted butter. 

Don’t worry, this fabulous artery-blocking Iskender kebab is served with a side of yoghurt to channel some healthy(ish) acidity. 

Ahem, imitation Iskenders or Bursa kebabs can be enjoyed outside the trademark joints in the trademark city.

Turkish kebab vendors in Istanbul's popular Taksim Square.
Turkish kebab vendors in Istanbul's popular Taksim Square. (Getty Images)

6. To doner or to not doner?

I was warned that some Turks do not consider the regular ol’ doner a kebab. But how can one write about Turkish kebabs and not mention the mighty doner, which has saved many lives late at night in so many European countries?

Six hundred tonnes. That’s how much doner Germany consumes daily, according to The Culture Trip. Germany is after all the country where once upon a time a Turkish man (more than one claims credit) turned the humble kebab into a popular European street food (more than one million doners are sold in the UK daily).

"The doner kebab originated from the Cag kebab and was given its final shape in the second half of the 19 century in Bursa by Mehmet Efendi, the inventor of the Iskender," Kara connects the kebabs. 

"I cannot definitively say that the people who introduced the doner kebab in Berlin were from Erzurum. But it might be and why not?" Kara says, linking the doner's ancestry to the cag.

“We can see doner kebab in Turkey, in Arab countries, in Europe and even in America. Many variations of doner kebab are very popular in Turkey nowadays and Turks are certainly accepting that it is a part of classic Turkish cuisine,” Mill acknowledges to TRT World

What is an authentic doner? You could go to Berlin and hunt one down or you could try Asim Usta’s Karadeniz doner in Besiktas, Istanbul.

Pottery kebab are an Anatolian speciality prepared in a clay pot or jug. It’s usually made with lamb, beef, or chicken with vegetables and garlic. Traditionally cooked in a tandoor or clay oven, the pot is sealed with bread dough and left to simmer in its own juices for hours.
Pottery kebab are an Anatolian speciality prepared in a clay pot or jug. It’s usually made with lamb, beef, or chicken with vegetables and garlic. Traditionally cooked in a tandoor or clay oven, the pot is sealed with bread dough and left to simmer in its own juices for hours. (Getty Images)

There are many kebabs that could be on this list for their novel cooking methods, such as the tandir kebab which is bone-in lamb cooked in a pit or the testi kebab made of mutton or lamb chunks slow-cooked inside clay pots.

Then there are those which stand out because of the unexpected, such as the yeni dunya kebab, which is roasted with loquats or often inside the fruit for an acidic burst. 

Or the seftali (which is Turkish for peach and is pronounced shef-talee) which is made with minced meat but has no actual fruit inside.  

Instead, the seftali has a hefty swing which only the very daring can withstand — the kebab is wrapped inside a fatty membrane lining taken from the stomach of sheep and cows before it is grilled. 

So what's in a name? For the kebab has many, and each can require a deep dive (and plenty of antacids) into the rich food culture of Turkey.  

Disclaimer: None of the opinions or restaurants mentioned in the article are endorsed by TRT World.

Source: TRT World