Doner, at least the authentic variety, is by definition an artisanal creation. When made as it's supposed to be made, an usta ("master" in Turkish) selects cuts of meat to marinate and then stack into a towering cylinder shape. As it roasts on its vertical spit, the usta then creates each doner sandwich to order, slowly slicing off strips of meat one juicy strip at a time.
As it migrated west, though, this original slow food has morphed into a mostly soulless variant of fast food. As anyone who has visited London or New York can attest, in those cities doner usually comes from a factory molded piece of mystery meat that is as far from handmade as is the vinyl dashboard of an automobile. No wonder the English refer to doner as "elephant leg," a dish usually downed in the wee hours of the morning in a boozy, post binge-drinking haze.
Two British food writers, creators of a roving food stall called the Kebab Kitchen, are now trying to introduce their fellow countryman to what real doner should taste like. Reports the Independent:
The spinning "elephant leg" of juicy meat looks familiar to anyone who has ever walked through a British town centre in the wee hours, but these are no ordinary doners. These are West Country lamb or chicken doners, served with red cabbage pickled in pomegranate molasses, onions steeped in sumac, crunchy tomato salsa, smoked garlic yoghurt and roasted habanero chilli sauce. And they are delicious.
The venture is the brainchild of two young London-based food writers: James Ramsden, 26, who runs The Secret Larder supper club from his flat and published his first cookbook Small Adventures in Cooking last year; and Oliver Thring, 28, a regular on the food pages of newspapers and magazines and two-time nominee for the Guild of Food Writers New Media award. Sharing an enthusiasm for the street-food movement that has seen gastronomes lining the pavements to queue for posh burgers from Meatwagon, banh mis from Banh mi 11 and "haute-dogs" from The Dogfather, they cooked up a plan to give the doner its moment in the sun.
"You say 'kebab' and people think '10 pints of beer, 2am and elephant leg'," Ramsden says. "But when you get down to it, a kebab is just decent bread, nice meat and fresh salad. We thought that we could change attitudes towards them and show how amazingly delicious and healthy they can be."
"Which is how they're seen across the rest of the world, after all," Thring adds. "If you go to Turkey, or to Germany or Australia, the quality is often very good indeed. Britain is unique for having truly terrible kebabs on the high street. I remember one van when I was at university where they used a kind of barbershop hair trimmer to shave the pink slimy meat off."
Before launching Kebab Kitchen, the stall's creators wisely went on a research trip to Turkey, doner's birthplace. For those interested in doing some of their own doner research, Istanbul Eats has some suggestions for classic spots in Istanbul here and here.