Sunday, February 07, 2016

culinary plan for today: döner kebab

North and south of the Mediterranean, there is a beloved sandwich that goes by at least three different names. The sandwich's concept and execution are so similar in this part of the world that I'm justified in thinking of the shawarma, the gyro, and the döner kebab as essentially the same sandwich. Think I'm crazy? Then compare for yourself.


Gyro (also called a gyros).

Döner kebab.

You'll have noted that the greatest variation among the three sandwiches occurs in (1) the bread used, and (2) the sauce or sauces applied to the sandwich. Aside from that, the meat tends to be shaved, marinated rotisserie chicken, beef, or lamb; and the vegetables tend to be lettuce, tomato, and onion, possibly reflecting the modern influence of the American hamburger. A gyro is more likely to have feta cheese in it, plus white tzatziki sauce. There might also be olives. A shawarma and a döner kebab will more likely have a spicy red-chili sauce in them, although there might also be a tzatziki-like yogurt sauce to moderate the spiciness of the red sauce. Gyros in Greece might also be stuffed with—of all things—French fries, making them heartily carby.

Because my boss quite randomly and generously got me four loaves of fragrant Turkish bread on Friday, I'll be making döner kebab today. The bread isn't really the type normally used for döner, but that's fine: if you click on the döner link above, you'll see right away that bread is a variable ingredient: some döner is made with bun-like bread; some is wrapped in pita-like bread; some is made with a hoagie-ish roll. Such variation makes me feel that I can take some liberties as to what bread I use for my döner.

My first-ever döner experience was in 1989, when I was living in Fribourg, Switzerland. Both Switzerland and Germany had been experiencing a strong influx of Turkish folk (I still don't know why), and the Turks generally made their presence known not by building mosques, but by establishing Turkish eateries. Two or three such eateries sat clustered right at the Sarine River's edge, close to downtown.

At the time, I was a college junior, and I had selected Switzerland as my study-abroad country. I was housed with a Swiss family, the Thalmanns, and I received a monthly "allowance" or stipend that I could use to pay for lunch, buy magazines, and/or make other small purchases. Early on, back when I was new to the city and still in exploration mode, I would walk right past the Turkish joints. The lovely smells and the displayed food caught my eye, especially something that I came to call petites pizzas—and the lady at the register never contradicted me. These little pizzas were essentially a type of soft bagel whose center was stuffed with rough-chopped sausage and some sort of cheese. No onions, or I would never have fallen so hard for those amazing little toruses. I swung by that place quite often, to the point where I became a regular, and the lady always knew what I would order: deux petites pizzas, s'il vous plaît. Two little pizzas, plus a drink and a banana and an orange, were my lunch.

Later on, I decided to zig instead of zag during my daily route (it was a 40-minute walk to the Université de Fribourg from where I was living in nearby Bourguillon), and this is how I discovered a bare-bones restaurant that looked like a butcher shop from the outside. Inside, it was spacious and nearly empty, with a Spartan display counter, white-painted walls, and a white-tiled floor. Very clinical. Behind the counter were two serious-looking Turkish guys whose mastery of French struck me as shaky at best. The menu on the back wall was in French where French was needed; otherwise, the names of the food being sold were all in Turkish. Not having any idea what a döner kebab was, I ordered one. One of the guys asked what I wanted in it, and I said, "Anything's okay, but no onions." He then asked if I was fine with spicy food, and I nodded eagerly.

What the guy gave me will always be my first love when it comes to döner kebab. I smelled it, and there was a familiar, gyro-like fragrance. But the bread wasn't a pita: it was puffy and thick, with a golden, spiced surface speckled with black sesame seeds. The surface also had regularly spaced indentations in it, making it look a bit like a shiny, golden pillow. (I'm not sure, but I might be talking about a form of Turkish pide bread.) Inside the bread was a veritable mound of shaved lamb, charred and crispy, yet also moist and succulent. Per the guy's warning, there was a slathering of red sauce and a handful of chopped green-chili peppers inside, too. Nothing else, if I recall correctly. The sandwich was simple and direct, every flavor element insisting upon itself, creating a chorus of tastes and aromas that were immediately addictive. Even by my standards, the sandwich was large and generous; European portions tend to be smaller and stingier than American portions (which likely explains why Europeans aren't as fat as us Yanks), but this was my first encounter with Turkish munificence. Every single bite of that sandwich was a joy, and although I realize that the passage of time has mythologized the sandwich in my memory, I know that, at the core, once we penetrate the myth, the reality is that the sandwich was awesome.

Pretty much every döner kebab that I've had since then has been a disappointment. In some cases, the bread was insufficiently thick and lush. In other cases, there wasn't enough meat, or the sauces didn't have the right kick. Short of going back to that spot in Fribourg to see whether that sandwich shop still exists, I have no way of reliving the experience of my very first döner.

Unless I try to make that sandwich myself.

And that's what I'm going to try to do today, using bread that, while not the same as that original bread, comes close enough to the original to evoke the past. I've got the lamb; I've got the rest of the ingredients; it's just a matter of prepping.

Stay tuned. Photos are on the way.


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