Know Your Döner Kebap — History Overview and Selected Dishes

Döner kebap, or in short döner, is known almost all around the world. Sure, ingredients and sauces vary, and often it even comes under a different name. Shawarma, gyros, tacos al pastor, sufllaqe or kabab Torki are some of the derivations of it. But the döner basics remain the same: beaten pieces of meat are seasoned with suet, local herbs and spices, skewered on a spit and grilled vertically. Originally the meat used for döner kebap was lamb. Today, in Istanbul, it is made of a lamb and beef mixture, or even only beef.

Picture of a typical döner kebap stand in Istanbul, Turkey.
A typical döner kebap stand in Istanbul. © Photo by Matt_Welbo

The Origin of Döner Kebap

Most anthropologists claim that cooking fires started about 250.000 years ago, yet there isn’t any clear proof about the beginning of cooking in the history of mankind. Probably some kind of kebab has been consumed since the day mankind started using fire for cooking. In Sumerian, kabuba means to cook on ember and in Arabic it means to fry meat. In the Turkish period it gained today’s meaning: grilled or broiled meat on a (vertical) skewer or stick.

It is considered that kebabs come from an earlier time when Nomadic tribesmen grilled meat on their swords. In his 18th century travel books, Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi mentions kebab as a horizontal stack of meat. In the 1860s Iskender Efendi from Bursa contributes to the kebab with a new angle – vertical grilling and serving it in thin slices. The döner kebap, which simply means rotating kebab, stands out as an innovation in the history of Turkish cuisine.

Famous Döner Kebap Dishes

The overview below is by no means a complete list of all döner dishes available. It’s just a sample of some you may want to try out during your stay. You can find these dishes all around the city, whether in a chic or a modest small restaurant.

  • Döner Kebap is served in various ways. The meat used can be lamb, lamb and beef or chicken. In restaurants it mostly comes on a plate with rice or fried potatoes, and salad on the side. Since it has recently become a fast-food dish too, you can also get it as a sandwich in between pide – pita like traditional thick bread.
  • Döner Dürüm is another very delicious serving style of döner meat which is wrapped
    Picture of a plate of Bursa İskender Kebap in Istanbul, Turkey.
    Bursa Iskender. © Halid Altuner

    in lavaş – tortilla like thin leaves of bread. The accompanying ingredients like green salad, fried potatoes, pickles or hot tomato sauce are optional. So ask what you can have in the wrap and add or omit according to your taste. Sometimes dürüm is made by using grilled minced meat brochettes mounted on a wide skewer, again wrapped in lavaş. There is no better or worse, it is all about preference.

  • İskender Kebap is the döner meat served on pieces of pide dressed with butter and yogurt on a side of the plate. If preferred, tomato sauce and extra butter can be used for dressing. It is also known as Bursa Kebabı. It’s one of my personal favorites.

Further Recommended Reading

  1. What Kebap To Eat While Visiting Istanbul?
  2. Istanbul’s Street Food – What’s Hot And What’s Not!
  3. Common and Popular Mezes In Istanbul
  4. Do you have a question? Ask it here!

Last updated on 03/07/2015