In Praise Of The Humble Kebab

Affordable, democratic, delicious and ancient – Michael Smith on the magnificence of the humble shish

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My former girlfriend was a chef who’d cut her teeth in Conran restaurants. She knew how to eat out.

With her, restaurants overtook bars and clubs as my skeleton key into the nocturnal urban pleasures; through my early thirties, our evenings out were adventures deep into the labyrinthine world of London’s sophisticated restaurant culture, a subtly shifting and ever-evolving terrain: high-concept offal, swordfish cicchetti in Campari bars, Catalan tapas on cocktail sticks.

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I spent a fortune educating my palate and expanding my waist size on this voyage of discovery.

We split up, I’m broke, and that world of urbane pleasures is just a memory; but I take solace in one gastronomic delight that’s still available to a man on my budget, something I’ve loved ever since I came to London as a skint, skinny kid, something that is more than a match for anyone’s squid-ink risotto.

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If you know where to look, many of inner London’s shabbier stretches conceal an embarrassment of riches – proper kebabs, the starving creative type’s best friend, a mysterious, charcoal-grilled alchemy that transmutes British street food from something dirty into something delightful.

I’m not talking about the elephant’s leg you’ve heard all those horror stories about, where they leave the cling-film wrapper on by accident and let it melt into the grey meat anyway, because the punters, stumbling home after the nightclub at two in the morning, are too pissed to notice or to care. I am talking about proper kebabs, a gourmand’s street food, manna from heaven that peppers the deserts of our inner cities.

It was a Lebanese twist on the chicken shish that first got me, a refined and finessed version you might expect from the Paris of the East: skewers of succulent chicken on a charcoal grill, complemented by the freshest, zestiest tabbuleh, and exotic, silky smooth tahini sauce, finished off with the surprisingly delicious tartness of pickled turnips.

Dozens of places on the Edgware and Harrow Roads will rustle up this treat for you for about three or four quid. It’s the standard fare for all the local Arab blokes sitting in the cafes, playing dominoes, smoking strong fags down to the butt, inheritors of an ancient civilisation with a more refined palate than ours.

When I left that part of London, I ate an exquisitely poignant goodbye shish from the place at the bottom of my street, which had fed me well, several times a week, the whole time I’d lived there. I thought I’d really miss my local Lebanese, but I quickly realised I’d moved to the Mecca of kebabs: London’s Turkish quarter round Dalston and Stoke Newington, home of the ocakbaşi, serving the kebab in all its imperial Ottoman glory.

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Ocakbaşi (pronounced something like “oddjack-bashé”) means “place by the hearth”, or room with a charcoal grill in it – or in other words, a Turkish kebab shop. And it’s this grill, a magnificent beast, that’s the key to the flavours of this food.

The charcoal-blackened edges of the meat with that burned, carbon taste that carries over into the sweet, singed onions, into the thick, spongey bread that heats on top of it all as it cooks, absorbing all that smoke, soaking up the exquisite fatty juices of the sweating flesh.

Ah, the smoke and heat of that charcoal grill, keeping the moustachioed chefs sweating over skewers of quail and sweetmeats, raising a dew on my forehead as I look on, watching the sweltering spectacle while I wait for my food... all that smoke rushing up the bronze chimney with an image of the Hagia Sophia mosque hammered into it, the skyline of old Istanbul... and like Proust’s madeleines, that fleshy, smoky note carries intimations of a world of exotic, ancient glories, a world that rises in my mind’s eye like the Hagia Sophia shimmering above the Golden Horn...

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss thought “the kernel of any culture is gastronomic,” and what a culture this gastronomy hints at: you feel in your gut it’s the tip of an immense and ancient tradition, this cooking from the crossroads of East and West, the place where Europe and Asia meet, the heart of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empires for 1,500 years. The ocakbaşi is a living link to that past, sharing its ancient and delicious secrets, passed down in a five-quid takeaway sandwich roll.

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Kebabs are found across the lands these empires once dominated, transcending the shifting sands of politics and national borders and the rumbling tectonic plates of the big religions buffering up against each other.

Like beer across Northern Europe, or wine across the Latin countries, the kebab is ubiquitous across that great arc of the eastern Mediterranean that the West used to call the Levant (named by French crusaders who imagined it as the land where the sun rises – the fertile crescent stretching from Istanbul in the north, through Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem, down to the Red Sea and Egypt).

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Jews cook kebabs, Orthodox Greeks and Iranians cook kababs, Turks, Kurds and Arabs all cook kebabs, just as English, Germans and Danish brew beer, or Spanish, Italians and French make wine. Like beer or wine, there are endlessly inventive and nuanced variations on top of an underlying unity with these kebabs, a unity that otherwise, particularly in this region, is often tragically difficult to see.

I once visited the most riven of all these crossroads, Jerusalem. I ate kebabs by the Dome of the Rock, by the Wailing Wall, by the Mount of Olives. I got peckish towards the top of the Mount of Olives, and the old boy in the shabby Palestinian cafe where I stopped off was watching a 24-hour newsfeed of the Arab Spring live on a knackered old telly. We got chatting while he cooked.

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“Why is what’s going on in Cairo so important for the people over here?” I asked, naively, but sincerely. “Egypt is the grandfather of the Arab people,” he explained patiently, and in my vast ignorance a penny dropped.

The kebab I ate on the West Bank was the most memorable. After walking with my girlfriend into the scarred and battered streets under cover of darkness and torrential rain, past bomb craters in the tarmac and gangs of hoodies – who I assure you are far more scary than those outside your local Chicken Cottage – we entered a haven of warmth, laughter and civilised pleasure, and were treated to a spectacular shish.

The highlight of the night came, to our surprise, when a birthday cake with sparklers on it came through the kitchen doors for my missus at the end, courtesy of the dignified old Palestinian gent across from us, who’d overheard our conversation. A lot of the preconceptions I held shifted during those meals. On both occasions, I connected with the people and the culture who made me this beautiful food in a way I can’t imagine would have happened any other way.

But I digress. I was on about the kebabs of British inner cities, the saviour of our country’s dreadful street food. Our food culture is blighted by chasmic class divides as profoundly as any other part of national life. Food quality and food snobbery are inextricably linked, and our collective palate suffers accordingly.

The farmer’s market arrived at the same time as the gated community in the gentrified ghettoes of inner London, both symptoms of the same social dysfunction. There’s an unbridgeable gap between the artisan rhubarb jam or organic pork belly which the Observer Food Monthly classes pay through the nose for, and Britain’s national dishes for the masses, which, unlike Spain’s or Italy’s for example, are usually muck.

I’m not targeting those faux-trad, boutiqued versions of the old classics, like the J Sheekey fish and chips I paid £10 for from their Fifties’ aluminium caravan at a posh festival in the Cotswolds this summer. I’m on about the big brand burgers on the table when mum’s been to Iceland. And like the kids eating those burgers and the gilded youth at that posh festival, these two strata of our food culture never mix.

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In Britain, as I’m sure you’re all too well aware, cheap food generally equals shit food, a fact that’s nowhere more acutely obvious than on a street full of takeaway outlets.

Grey chicken bones in greasy cardboard boxes litter the floor, pizzas look the same on the faded shop photos as when they’re thrown up later, and as anyone from the North East coast like me will tell you, stay away from most fish shops.

Kebabs, cooked in the right way, are an antidote to this disease, the great democratic people’s food, democratic in a way that bypasses all that weird class dysfunction. It’s taken immigrants colonising (formerly) poor neighbourhoods to do it. Whatever effect mass immigration is having, the influence it’s having on our food at the cheaper end of the scale is fantastic.

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When I was younger, I’d eat kebabs stumbling home, drunk. Not that there’s anything wrong with this – being drunk and eating food are two of the most pleasant activities I can think of, so why people should look down on combining the two is beyond me – but these days, I’m more inclined to sit down in the corner of a kebab house and observe the endlessly fascinating social drama play itself out.

“Have you any idea who the two people who just left are?” the wide-eyed art students asked incredulously. “No — they’ve only been coming in here every day for 20 years...” said the exasperated bloke from Mangal II, Dalston’s iconic kebab joint, as Gilbert and George walked away. The different strokes in this part of London might sometimes rub each other up the wrong way, but at least they do rub up against each other.

It’s in cafes like Mangal, I finally feel part of the real London, part of the great majority of its population I never normally come into contact with: the ginger cockneys in Reebok Classics; the Muslim women in veils with prams. For all our talk of a multicultural society, we live in parallel strata that rarely intersect, and the places where we actually mix are few and far between.

The last time I ate in one of my favourite east London kebab houses, Bos Cirrik, the patrons were an old Turkish couple, a cockney family out for a birthday, a lass with a strong northern accent on a date with a French bloke, a few arty types and a trendy Japanese woman. Everyone was obviously there because they had at least one thing in common – they knew Bos Cirrik’s kebabs are masterpieces.

Such democratic appeal for something so delicious, and such a cross-section eating it in one place, is a small miracle; especially since Bos Cirrik is on the borders of a boutique enclave that’s almost completely dominated by white, middle-class trendies and their children on wooden bikes.

From the window, you can watch the people come and go: looking at the slip of a lad getting a takeaway from the lahmacun cafe over the road takes me back to my days when I virtually survived on those gorgeous £1.50 feasts.

Lahmacun, charred flatbread with a thin coating of tomato paste and minced lamb, cooked in a clay oven, wrapped with salad and a generous squirt of lemon juice, was what I lived on in my twenties.

Skint, with artistic pretensions, I’d wander from Hoxditch to Kingsland Waste at the violet hour, buy my dinner, and wander through the inner east with my favourite food as darkness fell, past roofless, tumbledown warehouses yet to be converted, and old men on reclaimed, threadbare office chairs playing dominoes in the streets as the lights of the City skyline began twinkling in the distance.

Now, 15 years later, not as skinny but almost as skint, it’s one of London’s great voyeuristic pleasures, sitting by the window of an ocakbaşi joint on this strip, tucking into a shish with a glass or two of the house red made with some mysterious Turkish grape, looking at the bushy-tailed young arty types promenading up and down, past the old blokes in Farahs and the big African women, while Turkish MTV plays strange pop music with swarthy blokes body-popping in the videos...

Oh the times, oh the fashions, oh the endless theatre on this street where all these people in their different worlds collide: and warmed by the generous red, the chicken shish and the singed onions drenched in pomegranate molasses, I even start to imagine it as something like a utopia achieved, or at least the closest this snobby island of ours will ever come to it.

Michael Smith’s novel Unreal City (Faber & Faber) is out now

Taken from Esquire's April issue, on newsstands now.

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