A Cultural History Of The Kebab

When you need to eat something quick and tasty, a kebab is something we can all agree on.
History of the kebab represented by a close up of a kebab with meat, vegetables and French fries photographed above a hexagonal tile floor.

I still remember my first bite of a kebab (or kebap, but we’ll get to that). A döner kebap to be precise. After two hours in an endless line, slowly freezing in the Berlin winter, I’d finally made it to the rotating altar and its intense aroma, nothing like the smell of onions and burnt meat too many people associate with this delicacy. I’ve been fascinated by this dish from the moment I first heard about it, and it wasn’t long before my research into the kebab’s origins turned up an intriguing and intricate history (as well as, finally, the answer to that trickiest of questions: kebab or kebap?).

My diet’s changed a lot since then, and even though I’m not 100 percent vegetarian yet, I am trying to watch my meat consumption, not just for the environment, but for my health too. But that’s never stopped me from indulging, on occasion, in the joy of wolfing down a mouthwatering pitta bursting with delicious flavors (no offense, pizza).

Whether it’s a 9 a.m. breakfast or coming home from a beach party in the middle of the night, whether it’s in the seediest neighborhood, the desert or the downtown of a rich city, it’ll always be there, ready to lure you in with its relentless pirouette that even the strictest vegan would struggle to resist. In fact, the kebab welcomes everyone in: with all the different combinations and condiments, it’s a democratic and inclusive dish.

Who Invented The Kebab?

A kebab is a dish of sliced or ground cooked meat with its roots in Middle Eastern cuisine. The method of cooking little pieces or strips of meat on skewers dates back thousands of years, and there are many theories as to the exact origin of the kebab. Excavations of the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri uncovered stone supports for skewers from before the 17th century BCE, and even Homer’s Iliad mentions pieces of meat roasted on skewers (ὀβελός).

In cities where this delicacy has been a staple for centuries, meat could already be found pre-sliced in butcher’s shops. This is likely because fuel used for cooking was relatively scarce compared to Europe, where the wide forests enabled farmers to roast large hunks of meat.

The word “kebab” reached the English-speaking world in the 17th century from the Arabic kabāb, in part via Hindustani, Persian and Turkish. According to linguist Sevan Nişanyan, the Turkish word kebap derives from Arabic kabāb, meaning “roasted meat.” Going further, the American Heritage Dictionary proposes a likely East Semitic root meaning “to burn,” “to char” or “to roast,” from Aramaic and Akkadian. The Babylonian Talmud even teaches that offerings in the Temple should not be kabbaba (“burnt”).

More generally, the word “kebab” was popularized by Turkish people and, today, kebab dishes have been incorporated into local cuisines and innovations, thanks to the ubiquitous fast food that is the döner kebap.

Types Of Kebab

Trying to describe every type of kebab in the Middle East would be opening Pandora’s Box, and this isn’t the time or the place. From Armenian to Iranian cuisine, Egypt to the Levant, there are countless names, stories and condiments associated with this dish, all evidence of the kebab’s very ancient history. By and large, dishes derived from the Middle Eastern kebab can take many names in local languages, like the Chinese chuan or the Lyulya kebab (люля-кебаб in Cyrillic script) in Azerbaijan.

Kebab is normally cooked on a skewer over a fire, but some kebab dishes are made in a pan, in the oven, or even as a stew, like the tas kebab. In most cases, the meat traditionally used for kebab is mutton or lamb, but regional recipes sometimes include beef, goat, chicken, fish or, more rarely, pork. And another term has recently been coined – Vebab – to refer to a vegan kebab.

Gyros Or Kebab? A Lively Debate

Although the history of street food in Greece dates back to antiquity, the iconic gyros and souvlaki only emerged after World War II. First brought to Athens in the 1950s by immigrants from Turkey and the Middle East, gyros were originally known as “döner kebap.” This is typically served in a pita wrap, or on a plate, with fries and various salads and sauces, including tzatziki.

Around the same time, the Greek word gyros replaced “döner kebap,” and the dish’s Greek variant became widely popular, particularly in North America. You can actually get classic shish kebab or souvlaki – little cubes of meat cooked on a skewer – in most English-speaking countries.  

Although gyros are unquestionably Middle Eastern in origin, the matter of whether modern souvlaki came to Greece via Turkish cuisine — and so should be considered a Greek version of shish kebab —  or whether it’s a contemporary revival of a Greek tradition going back to the Minoan civilization in the 17th century BC, is still a hot-button issue (at least between Greeks and Turkish people).

Kebab, Balkan Style

Ćevapi or ćevapčići, which derives from the word “kebab,” is a grilled dish of minced meat traditionally found in the countries of south-eastern Europe. It’s considered a national specialty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, and is also very common in Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania and Slovenia, as well as in North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania. The ćevapi’s Balkan roots date back to Ottoman times, while the Romanians have a dish with similar origins called mititei.

Spanish And South American Kebabs

Pinchitos or pinchos morunos is a kebab dish of Moorish origin found in Spanish cuisine. The name pinchitos is used in the southern Spanish autonomous communities of Andalusia and Estremadura, and consists of small cubes of meat on a skewer (pincho in Spanish ), traditionally cooked over charcoal braziers. Outside Europe, pinchitos are also highly popular in Venezuela.

Where Did Döner Kebap Come From?

With regard to the kebab’s origins, there’s a key moment in its history that can’t be overlooked, when it became even more popular and beloved than ever. Germany – the 1970s. The döner kebap explodes onto the scene with the help of Gastarbeiter (migrant workers, literally “guest workers”) from Turkey in Berlin.

The original dish evolved into its distinctive form, bread brimming with salad, vegetables and sauces, sold in large portions at very low prices. It quickly became the definitive fast food in the German capital and across much of Europe.

The Kebab In Europe

The first claim staked on the introduction of the Turkish döner kebap to Germany dates to 1969, when Nevzat Salim and his father started selling Iskender Kebap in Reutlingen (a German city in the state of Baden-Württemberg). But the Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe (ATDID) attributes the widespread popularity of the dish to Turkish Gastarbeiter Kadir Nurman’s food stall at West Berlin’s “Zoologischer Garten” (Berlin Zoo) station in 1972, offering the döner kebap as a fast food option.

The döner kebap originally sold in Berlin contained only meat, onions and a little salad. Over time, it evolved into a dish stuffed to the brim with salad, vegetables and an array of sauces. Funnily enough, in Berlin, if you ask for hot sauce on your kebab in Turkish, you still use the German word scharf, demonstrating the hybrid nature of the Berlin-style döner kebap.

The pita version has influenced the style of döner kebap in Germany and other countries, and many people see the döner kebap as Berlin’s quintessential dish, thanks too to its delicious vegetarian and vegan variants that are rapidly growing in popularity.

Which Is It, Kebab Or Kebap?

Let’s get to the point then: these days, although Westerners may be familiar with some of the kebab’s many other international variants, only two names ever really took hold in the West: kebab or döner kebap. The word “kebab” is often used in the West, but it’s common to see “kebap” written too. So what’s the correct form: kebab o kebap?

You just have to agree on which language you’re speaking. In Arabic-speaking countries, “kebab” is used. In Turkey, it’s “kebap.” It all refers to the same thing, but everyone calls it what they want.

This article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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Elisa Montagner

Copywriter, editor and translator, Elisa is a frequent visitor of cemeteries, Berlin taverns and twisted minds. She loves Venice, her hometown, and has a degree in languages, literature and cultural mediation. If she could be an object she would be a vinyl record or a slice of tiramisu.

Copywriter, editor and translator, Elisa is a frequent visitor of cemeteries, Berlin taverns and twisted minds. She loves Venice, her hometown, and has a degree in languages, literature and cultural mediation. If she could be an object she would be a vinyl record or a slice of tiramisu.