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.
In a previous post, this blog linked to a great Boston Globe article that told the story of doner's rise in Germany from a simple and affordable meal for Turkish guest workers to a fast food juggernaut that is now giving McDonald's and other international fast food chains a run for their money.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal takes a further look at the big business of doner, visiting a trade fair devoted just to this fast growing industry, in which Germany has now become a heavy weight player, producing some 400 million tons of meat cylinders a day and sending them out all over Europe. Naturally, big business breeds innovation, with the best example being the somewhat terrifying "doner robot," a machine does away with centuries of tradition and lets for a machine, rather than a knife-wielding mustachioed man, slice the doner. The WSJ, meanwhile, found all kinds of interesting new products at the fair, such as the curiously named "Doner Streaker," a truck specifically designed to deliver the logs of meat without them rolling around.
The full article can be found here, while an Istanbul Eats roundup of where to eat the best doner in Istanbul can be found here.
Has the DIY food movement finally, as they say, jumped the shark? Homemade ice cream? Of course. Homemade beer? Why not? But homemade doner? That might be taking things too far. Still, for the adventurous home cook who wants to recreate the joys of late night doner feasts in their own kitchen, the Guardian has a step-by-step guide to creating your own cylinder of roasted ground lamb (assuming you have a small blow torch and an empty tin can lying around). The recipe can be found here, and a somewhat unappetizing photo gallery that takes you through the process can be found here.
When Germany started bringing over Turkish guest workers in the 1960's, little did the country's leaders realize that it was also importing what was to become Germany's top-selling fast food: doner. Indeed, in many German cities, doner is as much part of the culinary landscape as bratwurst and other sausages.
In a an interesting article, the Boston Globe traces doner's rise from a quick meal for nostalgic Turkish guest workers to a fast food juggernaut. From the Globe:
In Berlin in the early 1970s, Turkish “guest workers,’’ who had come to Germany during the prosperous era a decade before and were trying to make ends meet, had the idea to pack the crispy, succulent meat slices into a warm, thick loaf of Turkish bread. The sandwich evolved to include chopped tomatoes, onions, cabbage, and cucumber slices, topped with a large ladle of sauce, usually a garlicky yogurt sauce or a mildly spicy tomato sauce. The result is a tasty, robust, and quick sandwich that Germans of all ethnicities order for lunch, dinner, and after last call.
“It’s fast, but it also tastes good, it’s healthy, and it’s inexpensive,’’ says Ahmet Tetik, 46, who started working in Sultan Palast when his father, Hassan, opened the place in 1994. A regular doner there costs about $4.60 (prices at other establishments vary from $3 to $6), which is inexpensive for a meaty sandwich that packs a lot of taste.
The doner’s impact has been as much cultural as culinary, representing Turkish integration into Germany (ethnic Turks are playing on the national soccer team). Tetik estimates that 80 percent of his customers are German, including many regulars whom the family considers friends.
China and its growing economy's insatiable global appetite for natural resources and raw materials have become almost legendary in recent years. Usually this hunger revolves around things like oil, gas and steel, but a report in the Turkish press claims the Chinese are coming after Turkey's precious supply of lamb intestines, the main ingredient in a funky-flavored dish called kokorec, a favorite among late night eaters. From Hurriyet:
China, which is expanding its culinary pallet as it looks westward, is looking to import 30 tons of “kokoreç,” or lamb intestine, per month from Turkey, which could lead to a strain on the local market.
“Our talks with Chinese businessmen are continuing, but they want to purchase kokoreç for a low price and they want 30 tons per month. This amount could lead to a shortage for us in the summer months since we produce 250 tons per month, and this is just enough to feed the local market,” said SBA Kokoreç General Manager Salim Kayalı.
Vatan has more details on this story (in Turkish), although still left unexplained by the Turkish press reports is how the Chinese suddenly developed such a yen for kokorec.
Meanwhile, Istanbul Eats has the lowdown on the best kokorec in Istanbul, as well as the fascinating story of the long-lost Vahap Usta, a man who earned the title of the "King of Kokorec" in the 1980's and then mysteriously vanished from Istanbul's culinary scene.
DIsputes over who was the first to cook a certain dish are not a new thing for Turkey and its neighbors. Of course, there is the ongoing argument over whether it was the Turks or the Greek Cypriots who invented baklava, or about who was the first in the neighborhood to stir coffee and lots of sugar in a pot of boiling water and serve it up in a demitasse.
Now it appears that UNESCO may have inadvertently helped start a whole new regional food fight, this time between Turkey and Armenia. Along with Korean traditional tightrope walking and Mexican Mariachi music, the UN body recently voted to add keskek, a traditional Anatolian stew usually served on the morning of weddings, to its "Intangible Heritage" list. The porridge-like stew, made of lamb or chicken cooked with wheat berries, is cooked in large cauldrons that can feed hundreds of hungry guests.
While Turks were probably firing up big pots of Keskek to celebrate UNESCO's decision, Armenians were crying foul. As ArmeniaNow.com reports:
One of the most popular dishes of the Armenian ethnic cuisine – harisa – has appeared this week on the UNESCO list of world heritage as a Turkish national dish called Keshkesk. The news has outraged many in Armenia.
Sedrak Mamulyan, heading Development and Preservation of the Armenian Culinary Traditions NGO, says harisa can absolutely not be Turkish.