Way before we first ever came to Turkey on holiday back in 1998, our knowledge of Turkish cuisine started and ended with its most (in)famous export: The döner kebab!
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll be fully aware that, mercifully, this is no longer the case. We love to experiment in the kitchen and work our way through the myriad of traditional Turkish recipes.
And, as for the country’s famous street foods, wherever we travel, we make sure we’re armed with a list of all the regional foodie delights not to be missed. Çeşme kumrusu in Izmir, çibörek in Eskişehir, piyaz in Antalya. We could go on. You get the picture.
A Celebration Of The Turkish Döner Kebab
But, especially if you’re from the UK – and you’ve been a fully signed up member of the 3am weekend club, queueing up in one of the town centre greasy döner kebab joints with the misguided aim of soaking up copious amounts of alcohol – you’ll be forgiven for thinking that we long ago abandoned the Turkish döner in favour of other, more appetising street food snacks.
At least in our old local hometown of Wigan, and our uni city of Hull, it was only those alcohol-fuelled early hours where a döner kebab seemed like a good idea. Those kebab joints didn’t even bother to open in the daytime.
Well, if your weekend döner kebab purchase ever made it home and you witnessed the fat-covered remnants in the tray the morning after, you knew it was perhaps a snack to be left well alone…at least until 3am the following weekend, that is, when once again, joining that queue in the kebab shop seemed like a cracking idea!
So, when we first came to Turkey on holiday, it was an absolute revelation. A real awakening. We quickly realised that we didn’t know the Turkish döner kebab at all! And so began the happy – and wonderfully tasty – journey of our döner education. We’ve learned a few lessons along the way…
Lesson 1: It’s ‘Döner’
It’s döner. The word döner means turning and refers to the rotating meat. The meat is placed on a spit and slowly rotates, cooking from the outside.
As the meat cooks, the dönerci uses a long blade to slice off thin slithers from top to bottom. These juicy slices of döner meat are to be served to waiting customers in the way they have requested. More of that in Lesson 4, below…
Lesson 2: It Is Actually Meat
Yes, mercifully, the 3am weekend ‘döner kebab meat’ we were so accustomed to in England has never been witnessed here in Turkey – at least by us. Yes, there is rotating meat on a stick! And yes, there are varying qualities and quantities of such meat – everyone has their favourite dönerci in their local area.
But how surprised we were in 1998 on our first visit to Fethiye when we discovered it actually was rotating chicken and rotating beef or lamb.
It wasn’t a uniformly-shaped cone of grey/brown cereal, pulverised ‘meat’ and whatever other ingredients go in there to create the mould.
More often than not in a Turkish kebab place, you will have two choices on the menu for your döner.
- Tavuk döner – this is the slithers of chicken, best served crispy on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside.
- Et döner – this is the meat döner. Sometimes, it will be beef, lamb or a mix of beef and lamb. Tail fat will be laid across the top of the cone of meat so that the juices can slowly infuse the meat and keep it moist and tasty.
Lesson 3: The Turkish Döner Kebab Is Not 3am-Meat-In-A-Pitta-Bread
A tavuk döner (chicken döner meat) or et döner (beef or lamb döner meat) is a perfectly acceptable, and often delicious, lunch or snack. Certainly in Fethiye, it is highly unlikely to be available after about 10pm, especially outside of the summer holiday season.
Indeed, most towns have their own locally famous usta (master) who is considered by many to be the best dönerci. They will only be open for a few short hours throughout lunchtime. Get there too late and you’ll be looking at an empty spit. Their döner sells very quickly and once it’s gone it’s gone. Closing time!
Then there are the kebapçiler (ke-bap-chee-ler guys who run the kebab places) in Turkey who also have special offers for school children. These places are packed with kids around lunchtime eating their set menu döner kebab with chips and ayran.
Granted, not the healthiest lunch. But this is fast food, Turkish-style. Homemade rather than mass produced.
Lesson 4: What Is Döner Kebab?
We’ve already said that in Turkey, döner is not just the 3am-meat-in-pitta-bread grub. That’s the döner kebab UK (north) version!
Actually, at least in our corner of Turkey, you’re highly unlikely to get your döner meat served in a pitta bread! And unless you’re in a holiday resort, you will rarely see a sign that reads, ‘Döner Kebab.’
You’re more likely to see ‘Dönerci’ (a maker or seller of döner kebabs). Or, you’ll see a list of the ways in which their meat is served. So, a döner kebab is lots of things. Let’s have a look at what’s on the döner kebab menu…
The Purist – Porsiyon Döner
That usta – the master of his trade – who only opens for a few short hours each day and sells out really quickly. We have one of those here in Fethiye. No choices. You order a 1-portion or a 1.5 portion.
And this is not cheap fast food! This is a plate of quality meat that is gonna cost you the price of a plate of quality meat!
At Cezayir Usta in Fethiye, your döner meat is served on a plate with sumac-covered, finely sliced onion and tomato. Rocket leaves, pickles and strips of flatbread are your accompaniments.
What else, in our opinion, makes Cezayir Usta a purist? Not only is it quality döner meat served in its simplest form. It’s also the way the meat is cooked.
Most döner kebab joints have a vertical grill powered by gas or electricity. The purist will serve odun ateşinde döner.
Odun ateşinde döner means the meat is cooked by a wood fire and, in this example above, the meat is rotated by hand and the spit is moved closer to, and further away from, the flame by placing it in the notches on the rest. (Not to be confused with cağ kebabı which is a more robust serving of meat on a skewer.)
It’s also possible to see döner kebab cooked on wooden fire on a vertical rotisserie. This requires careful work from the dönerci to keep the heat levels at the optimum temperature.
Does all of this constitute the perfect döner kebab? Ah, well, that’s entirely personal, isn’t it? And it really does depend what your taste buds are craving.
Pilav Üstü Döner
Another popular way of enjoying your döner in Turkey is pilav üstü döner. This is where your döner meat portion is served on top of a bed of Turkish rice pilaf.
If you’re a fan of the famous Turkish rice and you love your döner meat, this could be the perfect combination for you! You can order pilav üstü et döner or pilav üstü tavuk döner (meat or chicken döner meat).
It’s often still served with some flatbread, as well, so you can still make up your hand-held kebabs, too.
Döner Kebab Wrap Or Bread?
Let’s get down to the types of döner kebab lots of us might be more familiar with. The handheld version. Is your perfect doner kebab served in a wrap – döner dürüm – or do you prefer a more hearty, robust sandwich?
And do you want that wrap or bread to be filled with chicken or meat?
Again, for us, it depends what mood we’re in. Sometimes, it just has to be a dürüm (the döner kebab wrap). We have our favourite places to go for dürüm. We like the places that have oodles of salad. And, more importantly, oodles of meat. Nobody wants a sparsely filled dürüm!
And sometimes, it’s just got to be a more robust döner kebab. Some places will serve their döner meat in a half bread – just the same as when you order a köfte half bread.
But for that extra special döner kebab experience, look out for the places that are advertising tombik or göbit. These are two words for a type of circular bread roll that is just perfect for encasing your döner kebab meat filling!
This could well be our perfect döner kebab! A big, meaty tombik! Filled with meat or with chicken? Well, if you’re like us and you can’t decided, why not go both. The karışık döner (mixed döner kebab).
Of course, it makes your döner kebab a bit more pricey but we rarely eat them so, when we do, we make it worth our while! If you’re going to do something, do it properly! In Fethiye, Yengen is our go-to for such treats.
Lesson 5 – Regional Döner Kebab
No, no, we’re not done just yet. The döner kebab has a few more tasty treats up its sleeve! Let’s get regional…
Bodrum’s Sebzeli Döner
We love our visits to Bodrum and first foodie stop on arrival is the döner kebab joints in the old town. These guys are serving up sebzeli döner – this is döner kebab meat with vegetables embedded at intervals.
Your vegetables are usually chunks of potato, peppers and carrots. As the meat is shaved off, so are shavings of vegetable. The flavour and texture is just so different to a meat-only döner kebab.
Bodrum’s sebzeli döner is sold in portions by weight and is a good budget meal in a town that has a reputation for high prices.
Again, we always order a tombik / göbit. Tombik sebzeli döner and chips. Is this the perfect döner kebab? Barry thinks so!
There are a few places around Bodrum’s old town serving sebzeli döner so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding one if this takes your fancy.
Have You Tried Afyon’s Sucuk Döner?
Haven’t we just spent an entire article lauding the beef and chicken döner? Well, if ever you find yourself in the Afyonkarahisar province of Turkey, you will soon realise the area is famous for its sucuk.
Like we said, döner simply refers to the fact that the meat rotates. No reason why that meat shouldn’t be something other than chicken or beef.
So, enter the sucuk döner. Spicy Turkish cured sausage meat spinning on a stick!
For years, as we travelled by bus from Fethiye to Istanbul, we would stop at the service station in Afyon and eye the sucuk döner. But it was always around 3am. We put our 3am döner kebab days behind us a long time ago!
Fortunately, we got to sample a sucuk döner one day in Fethiye when the belediye hosted a regional food festival. At last, we could sit down in daylight hours with slithers of sucuk döner meat packed inside a half bread. It was worth the wait!
Of Course – Bursa Kebab aka Iskender Kebab
A tasty Iskender kebab lathered with sizzling, hot butter. The city of Bursa is home to the Iskender, but, fortunately, you can enjoy this kebab all over Turkey. Follow our Iskender Kebab recipe if you want to make your own at home.
Döner Kebab Recipes
If your mouth is now watering at the sight and thought of all these tasty döner kebabs, the good news is, you can create döner meat at home without having to have your own spinning stick.
Refika’s Kitchen has a good hack where she kneads minced beef and wraps it into a cube-shape before placing it in the freezer. You can slice thin strips off that cubed meat whilst it’s still frozen to give you a texture resembling strips of döner meat.
However, we like to go gourmet with our döner kebab recipe at home.
Visit your local butcher and ask for a cut of entrecote. Ask them to slice it thinly for you. And there, you will have slithers of quality meat to saute in butter. Either enjoy it as it is, over rice, in bread or topped with tomato sauce and yoghurt…