Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Atilla Kapar, author of the blog Türkiye ve Dünyadan Lezzetler  (“Good Tastes from Turkey and the World”) and a Turkish food enthusiast who, as he describes it, “reviews lesser-known restaurants in Istanbul that offer great-tasting food.” Atilla is a graduate of Bosphorus University in Istanbul 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 İskender Usta in the late 19th century in Bursa, one of the historical capitals of the Ottoman Empire. Before that, döner used to be a horizontal stack of meat rather than vertical, probably sharing a common ancestry with Erzurum’s cağ kebap . İskender 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 yogurt sauce and melted butter. İskender Usta’s dish became very popular and was called for some time “İskender’in dönen kebabı” (“Iskender’s rotating roast”), and eventually was named döner kebap and İskender 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 should be served by the end of the afternoon. Today, most restaurants and stands buy their döner stack from a third party that 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 offer 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 every day 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 Sokak 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 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’s 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 yogurt diluted with water) prepared by the restaurant and served in glass pitcher helps to wash down the döner. Cevahiroğlu is open for lunch on working days.
Address: Dr. Cemal Bengü Caddesi 53, Hürriyet Mah. Kağıthane
Döner was born in Bursa, but thanks to the fourth-generation grandsons of İskender Usta, the original İskender kebap can also be found on the Asian side of Istanbul. Kebapçı İskender makes döner using İskender Usta’s original recipe and ships its main ingredients – the meat, butter, yogurt and even the bread – from its flagship restaurant in Bursa. When preparing İskender kebap, pide (a soft, pitalike 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 yogurt and browned butter, for which the answer should always be yes. The ritual of pouring yogurt and butter over döner and the smell going through your nostrils stimulate all the senses and, voilà, İskender kebap is ready. Kebapçı İskender has two branches in Kadıköy, one of which is very close to the ferry terminal.
Address: Rıhtım Caddesi next to Kadıköy post office
Address: Bağdat Caddesi 375/1, Erenköy
Website: www.iskenderkebabi.com