Döner: Heavy Rotation
(Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Atilla Kapar, author of the blog Turkiye ve Dunyadan Lezzetler (“Good Tastes from Turkey and the World”) and a Turkish food enthusiast who, as he describes it, “reviews lesser known restaurants in İstanbul that offer great tasting food.” Atilla is a graduate of Bosphorus University in İstanbul and holds an MBA degree from INSEAD in France and Singapore.)
Döner is probably one of Turkish cuisine’s best-known specialties. Thanks to the millions of Turks running döner restaurants and stands outside Turkey (as well as the Greeks and Middle Easterners selling the related “gyros” and “shawarma”), today it’s difficult to find a city in the world that doesn’t have at least one stand selling meat roasting on a rotating vertical spit. According to some estimates, the combined profits of döner restaurants in Germany are four times higher than that of the country’s McDonald’s restaurants.
“Rotating roast” is the exact translation of döner kebap. It is commonly agreed that döner was first invented by restaurateur Iskender Usta at the late 19th century in Bursa, one of historical capitols of Ottoman Empire. Before that, döner used to be a horizontal stack of meat rather than vertical, probably sharing common ancestry with Erzurum’s cağ kebap. Iskender Usta ran a tradesmen’s restaurant in Bursa whose main dish contained slices of döner served on top of sliced pita-like bread and garnished with a yoghurt sauce and melted butter. Iskender Usta’s dish became very popular and was called for some time “Iskender’in dönen kebabı” (Iskender’s rotating roast), and eventually gave names to döner kebap and iskender kebap.
Traditionally the meat used for döner is lamb, although nowadays chicken and a mixture of beef and mutton are also quite popular. When preparing döner, marinated slices of lean meat are stacked onto a vertical skewer and then topped with tail fat that drips along the meat when the stack is heated. The best method to cook döner is with charcoal, although wood, electric and gas burners are also acceptable. Frequently tomatoes and onions are placed at the top of the stack to also drip their juices over the meat, keeping the döner moist. As the outer part of the döner roasts, it is thinly sliced by the “usta” with a long knife. Ideally the döner stack should be prepared by the restaurant early in the morning and the last portion be served by the end of the afternoon. Today most restaurants and stands buy their döner stack from a 3rd party who prepares the dish using industrial methods and a mixture of different meats. Fortunately for the döner addict, there are still some places left in Istanbul that prepare it using authentic methods and offering exceptionally tasty döner.
One such place is Karadeniz Pide Döner ve Lahmacun in the Beşiktaş neighborhood’s shopping district. The place is so well-known in the neighborhood that at lunchtime there are long lines of people queuing up to get their döner, here served as a sandwich. The döner stack is sold out everyday by the evening. In Turkey, the döner served as a sandwich is typically fattier than döner served on plate, and Karadeniz Döner is no exception.
Address: Mumcu Bakkal Sok. No.6 Beşiktaş
For those who would prefer their döner on a plate (which makes the dish both classier and a bit more substantial), Cevahiroğlu Restaurant in the Çağlayan is one of the best choices in town. The restaurant is situated in the middle of a commercial area packed with hardware shops. The hungry and demanding people working at these shops are Cevahiroğlu main customers, which ensures that the restaurant prepares tasty döner every day. The döner at Cevahiroğlu is served together with buttery rice, finely chopped spring onions, fresh tomato and pepper slices and a thin tortilla like bread called lavaş. Cool ayran (salted natural yoghurt diluted with water) prepared by the restaurant and served in glass pitcher will help to wash down the döner. Cevahiroğlu is open for the lunch on working days.
Address: Dr. Cemal Bengü Cad. No.53 Hürriyet Mah. Kağıthane
Döner was born in Bursa, but thanks to 4th generation grandsons of Iskender Usta, the original iskender kebap can also be found on the Asian side of Istanbul. Kebapçı İskender makes döner using Iskender Usta’s original recipe and ships its main ingredients – the meat, butter, yoghurt, even the bread – from its flagship restaurant in Bursa. When preparing iskender kebap, pide (a soft, pita-like bread) is cut into small squares, heated with charcoal fire over a grill and laid on a platter. Thin and tender pieces of döner cut from the stack are laid over the bread and a savory tomato sauce is poured over the meat. The plate is served immediately and the waiter asks whether you would like to have it with yoghurt and browned butter, for which the answer should always be yes. The ritual of pouring yoghurt and butter over döner and the smell going through your nostrils stimulates all senses and, voilà, iskender kebap is ready. Kebapçı İskender has two branches in Kadıköy, one of which is very close to ferry terminal there.
Address: Rıhtım Cad. Next to Post Office Kadıköy
Address: Bağdat Cad. 375/1 Erenköy
Post Tags: Beşiktaş, döner, grill, Istanbul restaurants, street food