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Favorite Traditional Turkish Food- Shish Kebap, Döner Kebap, and Köfte
I was assigned to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey for 3 ½ years in the early 90s. I loved Turkey and extended my stay twice from my original 2 year obligation. I traveled fairly extensively, both for official duty, and for personal travel. The Air Force tells us to embrace the local culture, which is pretty good advice.
With a couple exceptions, like sheep face soup, I embraced Turkish food. One category of Turkish food that I ate and enjoyed many times is kebap. And in case you’re wondering, it is kebap with a “p” and not kebab. Turkish kebap is basically roasted or grilled meat. Meat on a skewer is shish kebap. Meat on a vertical spit, like Greek gyro, is called döner in Turkey. Grilled, flattened meatballs are köfte. There are many delicious variations of each of these!
The food photos are from Flickr.com Creative Commons, but I have chosen them very carefully to represent the food I ate in Turkey.
Shish kebap is probably the most common way of grilling or roasting meat in Turkey, as this is done in restaurants and homes. Typically when families grill, it’s shish. That’s right, no big slabs of steak, later to be carved up with knife and fork. Just pull chunks of meat straight off the skewer with your pide.
Of all the meats, skewered lamb is probably the most common shish kebap in Turkey. You may also see chicken shish. Depending on the region, goat meat may be common.
Kebap is typically grilled over real wood coals. No Kingsford charcoal with lighter fluid, and no Matchlight quick starting charcoal.
There are a few annual “sheep holidays” in Turkey. These are holidays that are celebrated with the sacrifice of a sheep. Very special shish skewers may be made with small pieces of liver and other organs. One year my downstairs neighbors brought me a skewer of liver. I knew this was a very special honor. Unfortunately my texture quirks regarding food, particularly meat, prevent me from eating organs. And unfortunately my then-spouse, who would have enjoyed the liver, was away at that time. I graciously thanked them, and said I was very full, but would enjoy my kebap later. It was Miss Mocha Bean who enjoyed it later.
Go to Middle Eastern Food for links to a variety of kebap recipes, including lamb, beef, chicken, and shrimp.
This is a classic lamb kebap recipe from Turkish Recipes. Lamb cubes from the leg are marinated at room temperature for 2 hours, and in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
Middle Eastern Food. This recipe includes a marinade of cumin and turmeric.
How to Make Adana Kebap. This is in Turkish, but you can see how the meat is put on the flat skewer.
Incirlik Air Base is about 6 miles from Adana, the 4th largest city in Turkey. Naturally the Adana kebap is a favorite there. It is made with ground lamb, and pressed onto long flat skewers, about an inch wide.
For me, Adana Kebap was an acquired taste. I though it tasted like the smell of stinky underarm. Why would anyone want to use such a spice, or spice combination?!
But I was in Turkey for 3 ½ years. After we moved from Incirlik Village to Adana, our friend Necmiye showed us the ropes, including her favorite place for Adana kebap. After a little lemon juice, some onion, parsley, and roasted tomato, it was pretty darned good rolled up in pide flatbread.
This recipe for Adana kebap from RecipeZaar uses ground lamb, diced onions and peppers, ground sumac, coriander and cumin.
The Turkish Cookbook. This recipe uses ground mutton and lamb tail fat. It is suggested to let the meat mixture sit in the refrigerator overnight.
Köfte is often called a Turkish meatball, but is flattened like a small hamburger patty. It is usually made of ground lamb, with chopped onion and spices. It may have some bread crumbs. Izgara Köfte is another grilled Turkish specialty.
My fondest memories of köfte is having it at Kizkalesi, or “Castle by the Sea”. There was actually a castle on shore, and a castle on a small island off the shore. Kizkalesi is a small but popular beach town. It was only 85 miles from base, so I was able to go there many times. Our Turkish friend Ali would transport us over to the island in small groups on Saturday nights, and our friend Mahmet would prepare our feast, which almost always included köfte.
Here are some recipes for Izgara Köfte.
Turkish Recipes. Basic recipe with ground lamb, bread crumbs, onion, salt and pepper.
RecipeZaar. This version includes mint and parsley.
Döner Kebap is meat, most commonly lamb, roasted vertically on a spit. You may recognize this as being very much like Greek gyro.
Döner meat is layered, alternating lean meat with fattier cuts, so that it is “self basting”. The heating element is on the back side of the spit. The meat is rotated, and cooked meat is sliced off in thin ribbons, then re-exposed to the heating element.
In Izmir, there is an entire street with döner restaurants lining both sides. Our team of school-based providers went to Izmir once a month. We had our favorite döner restaurant that we frequented. I always ordered the Iskender döner.
This recipe for döner kebap from RecipeZaar is difficult to make at home, but true to the Turkish concept of döner kebap.
Buikding a Döner
Iskender Döner Kebap
My favorite döner by far is Iskender kebap. Thin slices of the meat are layered over thick pide bread squares. This is topped with a seasoned tomato sauce, and yogurt. Then the whole thing is drizzled table-side with melted butter.
In the 90s, the Iskender family patented their grandfather’s process of preparing kebap on an upright spit, serving it over bread squares, and topping with melted butter, as Iskender Kebap. This is sure to be a source of confusion!
Here are some links for Iskender kebap recipes:
Binnur’s Turkish Cookbook. This one does a “mini stack” by sandwiching ground meat with fat between to pieces of tenderloin.
RecipeZaar. This recipes uses lamb shish, and slices the roasted cubes into thin slices.
Turkish Recipes. For this recipe, you must acquire 400 g doner kebap slices. If you do not have a Turkish restaurant that you can buy döner from, I suggest you buy Greek gyro meat.
Iskender family member talking about the patented Iskender Kebap process
Chicken döner was more of a street food in Izmir. Roadside carts housed the vertical spits layered with chicken and fat sources.
Chicken döner, as a street food, is portable, served in flatbread with a bit of sliced onion and maybe a few greens.
Surprisingly, as picky as I am about lean meat, I had to do very little “dissecting” and discarding from the delicious chicken döner.
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