As an American newly living in Europe, there was nothing more enchanting to me during my first few months in Spain than doner kebab (this might be a slight exaggeration but not really). I’d seen these little shops all over the place while traveling throughout Spain, Bulgaria, and Ireland and found the sheer number of them puzzling. I wondered how so many of these fast food joints, offering nearly identical menus at nearly identical prices, could possibly stay profitable. After seeing the slabs of meat spinning vertically behind the counter and then tasting it for myself, I wondered briefly about the caloric content of this sandwich, which was spilling over with juicy chicken meat. But that concern faded with each bite.
Eventually, kebab (alternatively spelled “kabob” or “kebap”) turned into something of a routine for me. It became an occasional treat, an easy lunch on a lazy Sunday or a snack after a night out at the bars. Just like the bright colors and ornate Spanish architecture of the buildings in my neighborhood, these shops are part of the landscape here. My question as to how so many kebab restaurants could survive even with the nearest competitor less than a block away became obvious. These mom and pop shops outnumber the big fast food franchises in Madrid because they work. Everyone loves convenience and everyone loves delicious, cheap food (especially drunk, broke college students and young professionals…).
It wasn’t until recently that I started reconsidering the significance of kebab and its place here. It started with an episode from the podcast The Racist Sandwich called “Stop Asking Me About Kabobs.” In this episode, the hosts interview Yasmin Khan, who grew up in Iran and returned as an adult to travel and learn about the regional diversity of home-cooked meals for her cookbook The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen. One interviewer notes that, in his experience, most people’s understanding of Iranian food ends at kebab or variations of the grilled meat sandwiches I’d been enjoying without a second thought.
The irritation in her voice was palpable, and understandably so. Here she was, having just spent years researching and writing about the vast diversity of dishes that come from her home country. Still, as people from the “West” are generally only exposed to one image of food from this region, our understanding of her country’s cuisine remains dismally one-dimensional. Of course, this phenomenon extends beyond food. Given the media’s representation of Iran’s recent political history, most of us in the US have had a picture of this region painted for us: dangerous, isolationist, terrorist.
She offers an explanation as to why there’s so little diversity in the Iranian restaurants that have cropped up in Europe and the US. In Iran, she says, there isn’t much of a restaurant culture to begin with. Home-cooking is revered and the best meals are made at home. When people go out to eat, it pretty much amounts to going out for kebabs. Though not necessarily exemplary of Iranian culinary traditions, kebabs were the small piece of the country’s food that got exported on a large scale. For this reason, the home-cooking that Khan writes about did not get translated into the Iranian restaurants elsewhere in the world.
It took me a few days to really process what I’d heard. I eventually realized, in horror, why Khan’s words had such an impact on me. Kebab had become monolithic in my mind, a representative sample of food from… I didn’t even know where for sure. That was the scariest part. I’d started to see this indulgence as a culinary extension from some nebulous, undefinable tract of land East of here which I did not know and had not, until this point, cared to find out.
While this may seem inconsequential, the truth is that this oversimplification amounts to lumping half of a continent of different people and different cultures into one amorphous “other.” There is a tendency in the Western world to reduce foreign cultures to the small pieces that suit our needs or support our ongoing narrative about a place and its people. We generalize and fetishize what we deem desirable then disregard the rest.
Noor Javeri, a Pakistani woman living and studying in Warsaw, recently wrote about her experiences as a “desi” in Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. “A brown person is a Muslim to the Poles,” an Indian friend and stand up comedian tells her. He then recounts an instance of harassment where a Polish man confronted him on the streets of a supposedly unsafe neighborhood in Warsaw, screaming “Hey, kebab!” In this case (and I’m sure this was not an isolated incident), reducing people to kebab is not a result of harmless ignorance but an act of intentional dehumanization.
It’s difficult to overstate the danger of this. As discussed above, this goes beyond food. Allowing diversity, history, values, and customs to be diluted and erased until we’re left with a cheap, convenient meal for binge-drinking young people with disposable income is, in my mind, an injustice.
The truth is that the kebab we find in Europe does not come from any one country or any one culture. It is not some kind of representative “ethnic” food that happened to become popular here (what makes food “ethnic” anyway?). It’s a living, breathing, changing example of what happens when cultures collide.
According to most sources, kebab was introduced to Europe by Turkish immigrants. In the 1960’s, due to an agreement between West Germany and Turkey to increase the labor supply during a period of economic growth, Turkish migrant workers flocked to Germany and surrounding countries, bringing kebab with them. The first kebab shops began gaining traction in the 1970’s, when Kadir Nurman is credited with turning the meal into a portable sandwich to suit the busy lifestyles of Germans, and quickly exploded throughout the rest of Western Europe from there.
While this is technically true, the kebab sandwich existed before Nurman and they’ve existed outside of Turkey for centuries. “The sandwich has been around for ever in the Middle East, so I’m not quite sure how anyone can claim to have invented it. I think it’s some kind of marketing ploy” says Lebanese food writer Anissa Helou, whose new book Feast: Food of the Islamic World is out now (she adds: “you have to be drunk to eat one of those”). In fact, kebab can be found as far east as China’s Xinjiang province, as far south as India, and as far west as Greece and Bulgaria.
Also commonly referred to as shawarma or gyro, kebab be defined roughly as any meat (though typically lamb, beef, or chicken) wrapped around or skewered on a stick and then spun over an open flame (kebab literally translates to “spinning meat”). The kebab we find in Spain and elsewhere in Europe typically spins vertically, a technique that was developed and perfected in the days of the Ottoman empire.
“Instead of just kicking up their feet like their name suggests, Ottoman chefs changed the world of animal roasting by realizing that when meat was spitted horizontally, the fat dripped down into the fire, causing the flames to rise up and singe the meat. Turning the spit vertically kept flames in check and washed the meat in a tasty bath of fat,” writes Dan Gentile in Thrillist.
This is where the similarities end, though. The spices, accompanying vegetables, and typical vessels for transporting the meat to your mouth all vary by location. A gyro in Greece, while related, is distinct from a kebab in Turkey or Iran. These differences have only multiplied further since the kebab’s introduction to Europe. Those original doner kebabs from Germany have morphed and taken on new characteristics, according to regional taste, in countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
This article in Munchies highlights just how much these meals can vary by country in Europe. In the Netherlands, they prefer a dish made entirely their own, invented by a hairdresser giving it the name “kapsalon.” In Sweden, you’ll find a chili sauce with Malaysian and Thai influences atop your kebab. In Poland, “the Berlin-style kebab became a synonymous with German cuisine for ex-pat Poles (sorry, Currywurst) and many brought a taste for it back home, along with the Deutsche Marks in their pockets.” That’s right, Poles returning home after working in Germany brought with them a love for juicy German kebab (and yet, somehow I doubt that Polish man ever referred to a German as “kebab”), which they then began to top with Polish-style pickled cucumbers.
The story of kebab is unquestionably international. It has been touched by many hands from many places all over the world. There’s a Turkish kebab restaurant near me just a few blocks away from a Kurdish kebab shop handing out stickers and pamphlets with information about the conflict between Turks and Kurds. The kebab place by my apartment in Madrid is owned by a Bangladeshi immigrant who has a jar on the counter raising funds for the International Islamic Cultural Center of Spain. The spiced halal meats were made popular in Paris mostly by immigrants from previously colonized North African countries. Kebab cannot be reduced to one place or one person.
According to Ibrahim Dogus, the story of kebab’s journey to the hearts (and coronary arteries) of Europeans everywhere is one of acceptance and integration. Dogus is the founder of the UK-based think tank Centre for Turkish Studies and host of the British Kebab Awards, which drew a crowd of over 1,000 spectators this year.
“From one perspective, the kebab industry can (and I believe should), in many cases, be seen as an example of successful integration. Immigrant communities, through hard work and entrepreneurship, have woven themselves into the economic and social fabric of their receiving societies. The presence of the kebab industry in Western Europe is now unquestionable, even if some would like to question the presence of those who brought them” he writes in Al-Jazeera.
He goes on to emphasize how this integration goes both ways. “Immigrant communities adapt to and integrate into their recipient cultures, but they also engage in a process of communication, bringing new ideas and cultural elements.” In this way, both cultures experience a shift to some degree. “Berlin would not be the same without its Turkish and Kurdish communities, nor would North London. Nor, for that matter, would be countless smaller towns and cities across these countries.” In the face of Brexit, brought on by increasing Islamophobia and xenophobia, Dogus says “it is heartening to see that kebab shops are everywhere and they have transcended their origins and become a part of countries everywhere in Western Europe.”
While Dogus sees Europe’s affinity for kebab as a weapon against Islamophobia, there are still many people who would disagree with his belief that the spread of these restaurants has been mutually beneficial for both immigrant and recipient culture. Unfortunately, this integration and the dissemination of kebab has been met with plenty of backlash. Though anti-Islamic views are prevalent in Europe, nowhere are they more visible than in France, a country with a population of over 5 million Muslims (the highest in Europe).
In France, kebab has been on the rise since the 1990’s. Today, “some 300 million kebabs at about 6 euros each are eaten in 10,200 outlets in France each year, putting the 1.5 billion euro ($1.9 billion) industry just behind burgers and pizza,” according to Gira Conseil. But, says Alexandria Page in this Reuters report, “in a country whose national identity is so closely connected to its cuisine, France’s hard right has seized on a growing appetite for kebabs as proof of cultural ‘Islamisation.'”
Or rather “kebabization,” as some from the far right have taken to calling it. Just as in the US, ultra-conservative French politicians have gained traction in recent elections by scapegoating immigrants as the economic plight of the working class. French nationalists latched onto the idea of kebab as a symbol for their cause, and they did not let go. “Kebab shops, with their Arabic signs and workers hailing from the Middle East and North Africa, were demonized” says Lauren Paley in her Frenchly piece called The Kebab Paradox. “In local elections, candidates looking to gin up support began pandering to fears of too much immigration, too much Islam, and altogether too much kebab. In many parts of the country, the anti-kebab campaign worked.”
The anti-kebabization campaign used food to criticize the changing demographics in communities that were not exactly immigrant-friendly. Says one kebab shop owner in Paris: by criticizing kebabs “you can speak ill of Muslims without speaking ill of Muslims.” Or, as Sage puts it, “In the land of Égalité, Fraternité and Liberté (equality, brotherhood and freedom), you can’t say there are too many Arabs in my town but you can say there are too many kebab shops.”
This sentiment became perfectly clear in Béziers, France when mayor Robert Menard banned all new kebab shops from opening, claiming that the city had become the “capital of kebab” and ranting on Twitter that kebabs “have nothing to do with our culture.” In response to his remarks, a Facebook event was created in order to organize an “International Kebab Festival” in Béziers; 50,000 responded that they’d be attending the event in this town with a population of 80,000.
The most ironic part of this, as Paley points out, is the role that France’s colonial policies had in paving the way for so many kebab shops. Contrary to Menard’s claim that kebab has “nothing to do with French culture,” kebab’s success in France is a direct consequence of French history.
“Traditionalists assert that kebabs are decidedly un-French because of their roots outside of France. Yet the kebab wouldn’t be so prominent in France if it weren’t for France’s official policies of colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the French citizens who make up this kebab cohort are North African migrants (or their descendants) whose countries of origin were forcibly linked with France during the colonial era. So just as France irrevocably changed North Africa, immigrants and French citizens of North African descent are changing France.”
It seems selective memory has proven to be a convenient tool for right-wing politicians in both France and United States.
Despite the slow march forward towards the type of acceptance Dogus dreams of, there is hope. Kebab shop owner Oznur Puskulle, according to the Reuters report, believes that these issues and conflicts will fade with time, “noting that the arrival of pizza in the 1960s brought with it charges of ‘dirty Italian shopkeepers who don’t speak French and stink of sweat.'” Signs of growing appreciation of kebab, from the International Kebab Festival to the Kebab Awards, from the first Michelin-star kebab restaurant to the online petition to create a kebab emoji for iPhones, the vast majority of Europeans seem to be sending a clear message: kebab and the people who brought it to Europe are here to stay.
Now, if only we could bring a new wave of kebabization to the U.S.