The Truth About Doner Kebab

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By Matthew Yglesias

I certainly agree with Spencer Ackerman that real Jewish food is found in the delis of the urban United States and the Eastern European villages of yore — not the hummus and falafel that Israelis seem to have hijacked from their Arab neighbors. That said, the food of my youth was, in many ways, Middle Eastern food. Or, rather, the drunk food of my youth was since back in high school I was often intoxicated in the vicinity of MacDougal Street (now defunct institutions such as the Wreck Room and Cafe Creole, neither of which seemed very impressed by Elizabeth Dole’s minimum drinking age regulations along with one still-in-business operation that I won’t name to ward off the cops) were largely, but not entirely, responsible) home to Yatagan and Mahmoun’s Falafel.

Falafel was, obviously, an option at such establishments. But my particular love was doner kebab. It was only later in life that I became the sort of cosmopolitan person who knows that elsewhere in the United States doner kebab is not customary drunk food and, indeed, is not widely available at all. But in Europe, where people have culture, it’s everywhere.

At any rate, I’d been assuming that this was an actual Middle Eastern dish even though presumably in that region there’s not a ton of demand for drunk food. But it turns out that it was invented in the early 1970s by a Turkish immigrant living in Germany:

The chef was born in Turkey but later moved to Germany in the hope of one day opening his own restaurant. He was serving customers at a snack stall when it dawned on him that kebab meat – a mix of roasted lamb and spices traditionally eaten with rice – could be served differently.

‘I thought how much easier it would be if they could take their food with them,’ he once said.

The chef in question was Mahmut Aygün and I regret to say that he passed away last Wednesday. A hero of our time.

13 responses to “The Truth About Doner Kebab

  1. I’d always just assumed that doner kebab was a European term for gyros. They look and taste exactly the same to me. Is there a difference?

  2. It’s not exactly an original sentiment, but I’m very fond of Bereket on Houston St. I went to Istanbul and saw the word “Bereket” somewhere and just that made me happy. (It means “good food” or something similarly basic.)

  3. Midwest Product

    You’ll have to forgive my confusion as a Goy, but is the argument here that corned beef and the like originated in Israel proper, or that deli foods that were created by the diaspora in Europe should be considered “Jewish” while the food consumed in the actual geographic center of the Jewish world should be considered not Jewish?

  4. Oh fuck YES. Living in Austria, döner kebabs were easily the best thing going, being the crap out of all of the various forms of wurst. Extra onions, with the spicy sauce, and an Orange Fanta. Sadly there’s no place in Bay Area that does it right. One of the few things I really miss about that country.

  5. good post! i think it’s great when you guys open up a bit and share something personal from your background. food is personal!

    but, i have to agree with midwest’s puzzlement over the jewish food/israeli food comparison. you know they’re completely different, right? most jewish deli food (corned beef, smoked fish, blintzes) was well entrenched here in the US, popularized by eastern european jewish immigrants long before israel even existed.

    it’s pretty common to see jewish/israeli conflated in political discussions. less so when talking about food/cuisine. both, however, are incorrect and the result of simple lazy thinking.

  6. Here’s the thing. There’s an effort underway in the synagogues of America to tell US-residing ashkenazi jews — people whose families come from Eastern Europe and who eat brisket and schmaltz — that their “cultural heritage” is the heritage of the modern day country of Israel.

    For example, I heard the tragic tale of a nice Jewish grade school girl who brought falafel into class for a day when everyone was supposed to bring in an example of their family’s ethnic heritage. I happen to know that the girl in question’s family came from Poland.

    But basically there’s an effort to back-read modern Israeli culture into the diaspora. To redefine American Jews as Israeli-Americans. It all starts with the Israeli flags in the synagogues but extends to matters culinary.

  7. The suggestion that the Jewish culinary heritage is exclusivley Eastern Europen, and that Jewish food is all schmaltz and and herring, is not uninformed, but also an insult to the millions of Jews from other backgrounds. Jews have lived in Spain, Italy, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, and China, for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. Many of those comunities are even older than the Eatern European community. The communities of Rome and Baghdad, only two examples, predate the Polish Community by a thousand years. So, tell me, what’s more “authentically” Jewish, the carciofi alla giudea from Rome, the beef and beet mashshi from Baghdad, or the kasha from Cracow?

  8. The suggestion that the Jewish culinary heritage is exclusivley Eastern Europen, and that Jewish food is all schmaltz and herring, is not only uninformed, but also an insult to the millions of Jews from other backgrounds. Jews have lived in Spain, Italy, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, Iran, and China, for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. Many of those comunities are even older than the Eatern European community. The communities of Rome and Baghdad, only two examples, predate the Polish Community by a thousand years. So, tell me, what’s more “authentically” Jewish, the carciofi alla giudea from Rome, the beef and beet mashshi from Baghdad, or the kasha from Cracow?

  9. I support the ubiquity of doner kebab throughout continental Europe and the pairing of said kebab with orange fanta (not the US version, though – different recipe I think).

  10. matt, thanks for your clarification. i had not heard about the effort you describe, and find it insidious.

    oh, and josh, i don’t think that anyone is trying to suggest that the culinary heritage of jews is exclusively brisket and schmaltz. i believe what is being addressed is the food of jewish-american immigrants from the early 20th century. the group that is responsible for pioneering the jewish deli genre of dining establishments that are still prevalent today.

  11. Pingback: Angry Rant from a New Yorker: Middle Eastern Food « The Internet Food Association

  12. Pingback: German Ethnic Food « The Internet Food Association

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