For most people, thinking about Turkish cuisine generally conjures up in the mind countless images of delicious meaty kebabs. But for the most part, these imaginings are limited to the standard döner kebab and shish kebab that the western world are accustomed to. But in fact, the types of kebab available in Turkey are countless, and offer far tastier varieties.
Kebab generally refers to any dish of meat, fish or vegetables, which are grilled on a skewer or roasted using a rotisserie. In Turkey, the word kebap extends to include any of these dishes that are cooked over, or next to, a flame. It includes both small and large cuts of meat, as well as ground meat. Kebab in Turkey can be served on plates (known as porsiyon), in sandwiches, or even in wraps (known as durum).
Traditionally, the meat used to make Turkish kebabs is lamb. However, as individual tastes evolved, and regional specialties developed, other popular meats used in Turkish kebabs have extended to include beef, chicken and fish. Using vegetables in kebabs has also always been popular in Turkey, and most commonly you’ll find varieties of kebab made with eggplant, tomato, peppers and onion.
It is generally accepted that the first kebabs in Turkey originated from the Erzurum province in Eastern Turkey, as cağ kebab; with meat stacked and cooked on a spit horizontally, rather than vertically as today’s döner kebabs are. These Turkish kebabs are first mentioned in Ottoman travel books dating back to the 18th century. The ‘father’ of the modern döner kebab, Iskender Efendi, then wrote that he and his grandfather “had the idea of roasting the lamb vertically rather than horizontally”, and invented a vertical rotisserie. It is this dish that is today most commonly recognised throughout the world as ‘kebab’.
So just how many different types of Turkish kebab can you expect to taste on your visit to Turkey? The number, in fact, is endless. And just how many varieties you sample also depends on your own desire to do so. During your tour with Istanbul On Food, you can expect to sample at least a few of these, including cağ kebab and ciğer kebab, to name only two.
To help you with the rest, I have included a list and photo montage of some other popular types – and you should endeavour to taste to your heart’s content. You certainly won’t be disappointed!
Shish (şiş) kebab – A traditional and familiar Turkish kebab of meat and vegetables, generally cubed and threaded onto a skewer, before being grilled and served with bread and/or rice with salads. Çöp şiş is a variety of this popular kebab, made with smaller pieces of meat and generally cooked on wooden skewers, as opposed to iron.
Adana kebab – Hailing from the South-Eastern Turkish province of the same name, Adana kebab is a spicy (read: hot) kebab made from ground mince formed over a wide skewer and grilled over charcoals. A milder version originates from a nearby town and is known as Urfa kebab.
Iskender kebab – This is the kebab which inspired Iskender Efendi to invent the vertically cooking kebab, and originates from his seaside hometown of Bursa. It is essentially döner kebab, served with a lathering of melted butter over a bed of bread, with yoghurt on the side.
Cağ kebab – This is commonly accepted as the predecessor to the modern döner kebab, and is made from lamb meat cooked on a horizontal rotisserie, before being sliced off, and grilled on a skewer. This is often referred to as a favorite Turkish kebab by visitors on our Flavours of the Old City tour.
Patlıcan kebab – Patlıcan means eggplant or aubergine, in Turkish. Therefore, this kebab is made from marinated kebab meat, served with aubergines over bread, with a yoghurt sauce.
Ciğer kebab – Don’t be put off – this Turkish kebab is more delicious than it sounds! This tasty kebab is made from portions of lamb livers, diced and marinated with herbs, and grilled on a skewer, before being served with bread and salads. It is commonly enjoyed in Istanbul by both locals and expats alike, for it’s wonderful flavors. You can taste this kebab on our Taksim Evening Food Tour.
Çömlek kebab – This is actually similar to a meat and vegetable casserole, cooked in a güveç (çömlek means earthernware bowl, in Turkish). Generally the meat is lamb or chicken, and eggplant, carrots, beans, tomato and green peppers are added to it before cooking.
Döner – The world-famous Turkish kebab literally means ‘rotating’ kebab, in Turkish. It is made from lamb, chicken or beef, which is slowly roasted on a vertical spit, and then thinly sliced off. Döner is served on a plate with salad and rice or potatos; in bread like a sandwich; or in a wrap known as durum. You can taste our favourite varieties of döner on any of our Istanbul On Food walking tours.
Hünkari kebab – This is also known as the Sultan’s kebab, because it was the favourite kebab of Ottoman sultans. It is made from sliced lamb meat, served over a bed of creamy pureed eggplant flavoured with herbs.
Tandır kebab – Generally hailing from Central or Eastern Anatolia, this kebab is made from lamb pieces – or even a whole lamb – that is baked slowly over many house in a special traditional oven called a tandır. The result is a tender and tasty meat that is then served with bread and raw onions.
Testi kebab – This unique Turkish kebab originated in Central Anatolia and the Black Sea region. It consists of meat and vegetables cooked in a clay pot (‘testi’ means jug, in Turkish) over fire. The seal of the pot is generally broken at your table, right before eating, and is certainly a fun experience during your visit to Istanbul!
I hope you learned that there is more to kebabs in Turkey than just döner and shish. And that this has inspired you to try some delicious meals during your visit to Istanbul. Join us on a food tour to get started in the right direction, and then take your own course on the kebab trail from there. There certainly is a world of kebab to discover in Istanbul!