It’s hard to find a town centre in the UK without a kebab shop. The social impact of the dish, especially the doner variant, is palpable. Whereas London was the roots of the branching out of the UK kebab, each city is now a hub in its own right with kebab shops to be found in the remotest parts of the land.
It is fair to say that the UK has something of a love for the sliced and diced piece of meat from the east, aptly reflected on by comedian Arthur Smith who claims he first fell in love with doner kebabs in Paris, before the dish became more common in the UK. Popular TV culture offers a good reflection of societal values and in the UK it is not without its share of references to the kebab; note, for instance, Harry Enfield’s character “Stavros the kebab shop owner” which was popular in the 1990s.
The taste and flavour of kebab differs region by region, with the midlands preferring a more garlicky variant of the archetypal north London doner kebab. There are now 20 different variants of doner meat produced for the UK market alone.
The kebab’s popularity owes a great deal to migration of Turkish Cypriot, then mainland Turkish and Kurdish workers, in search opportunities. Utter the phrase, “do you want chilli sauce with that?” and few Brits will be at a loss to designate who uttered the phrase and at what location – most will be able to tell you that it was a Turkish chap in a kebab shop… or a Greek for that matter.
Stereotypes are indicative of an intuitive identification by a mass of people, often conveyed, especially in the UK, with warm affection. This is just the case with those held in regard to the doner kebab. One episode of the BBC’s BAFTA nominated 2007 series, Pulling, has a sketch where Sharon Horgan’s character, Donna, has a kebab stolen from her but no one takes her subsequent lament seriously. There are traces in the sketch of the doner kebab’s struggle to forge something of an identity as a serious food after often being equated as a late night after party food. Of course, the idea that the doner kebab is a dish to be had after a drink is largely true and is part of the affinity that Brits have with it. Where would the late-nighter be without the filling and tasty dish to counteract the effects of vast amounts of alcohol? Often consumed as a forward looking cure for a hangover, the kebab is held aloft after hours as much as it is during diner hours.
The razor sliced thin meat that is doner is now frequently served with or as an aside with shish kebab. There is, amongst the growing eating-out-culture in the UK, a number of kebab shops taking their place in trendier areas where slow food is more common than the faster variant. Upper Street, Islington, for instance, has a high proportion of kebab outlets offering both the ambience and setting of a more traditional Istanbul kebab restaurant.
Harringay also has a number of established outlets which are full to the rafters throughout the week with people looking to both eat in and take away. These are the very same areas, starting from the top of Green Lanes and heading central, where kebabs began their life in London. That Harringay is often called little Istanbul is testament to the sights and aroma created by the kebab shops that line the corridor. There still remains enough of an exotic nature to the dishes to keep British culture interested. New recipes and innovations take place alongside older traditions that are introduced into the UK new.
You can’t go much further north in England that Newcastle. Here again, the kebab has taken hold with a number of establishments dotting the high street. It’s no surprise then that local icon Cheryl Cole recently exclaimed that she’s going to show Will-I-Am, the RnB producer, what the north East is all about in terms of a night out by referencing the doner, she said: “I’m taking Will to Bigg market for a kebab. I’m planning to take him out up there.”
There is a distinctive taste, preparation and presentation to the UK kebab. Meat served in pitta, for instance, is a UK trait. Similarly, UK chilli sauce has a different taste than the Anatolian variant. There are also variations of doner kebab, the middle-eastern shawarma, and the Greek gyro, with each taking hold in different areas of the country.
Values is, of course, still a major factor in the kebab’s popularity and is surely one of the main reasons that kebab one of the most popular dishes in the UK. With most kebab shops keeping prices below £5, consumers often find more value in the ready to eat kebab then they might in buying and preparing meat with a salad side.