Last week, after officially welcoming in the festive period with ice skating and mulled wine at the Natural History Museum, my friend and I found ourselves peckish, and decided to head down the Old Brompton Rd. Turning down the Argentine steak place, the Scandinavian eatery and the ever so English restaurant-cum-pub that was bursting at the seams with South Ken power families, I finally dragged my wilting companion into the strip-lit Lebanese, the window of which was completely taken up with kebab skewers.
‘Is this not a kebab shop?’ she asked, somewhat hesitantly… ‘Yes.’ I replied, and strode straight in.
Because this is the sort of kebab shop that it’s socially acceptable to visit. The sort of kebab shop that will serve you chargrilled chicken and lamb in marinades exploding with flavour, sitting atop fluffy flatbreads and mountains of crunchy salads, drizzled with yogurt so creamy it tastes like it just came from the cow. In short, it’s one of the best meals I can think of.
I feel a bit sorry for the poor old kebab. It’s got a bad rep. Visions of staggering drunks, doner spilling out of their mouths while they swear at the pavement are arguably the first things that spring to mind when you think of one. My housemates at university used to suffer from what they called ‘kebab remorse’ the morning after a particularly heavy night, and it’s painful to recall those hideous few months when an ex of mine discovered the doner pizza…
But grotty takeaways in the wee small hours aside, what exactly goes into a kebab? It’s really not that bad. Of course there’s the choice of meat. First and foremost is the doner meat (doner in Turkish literally meaning rotating roast.) Please resist the urge to shudder.
In authentic kebab houses, this inverted cone of flesh is merely lean lamb slices, stacked on top of each other and topped with a good portion of fat to keep the meat moist while it cooks. OK, in many of the takeaways you’ll find on the high st, these have been replaced by a block of solid unidentified ground meat (like a giant pointy meatloaf I suppose), and these are the ones to steer clear of.
This rotating method of cooking is actually very effective, as it gives the sinews time to break down and makes the meat deliciously tender.
If the lamb doesn’t take your fancy, there’s usually a chicken option. Again, in a good kebab house they will have marinated chicken on skewers, which they will chargrill to order, giving you an end result that tastes like the best barbecue ever. Nothing frightening there.
Once you’ve decided, you will be presented with a flatbread full of salad and pickles, topped with your meat and finished off with a generous slug of sauce. Spiced yogurt and chilli is delicious. Garlic sauce is less acceptable.
Now, a friend of mine may still laughingly bring up the time that I tried to justify my midnight takeaway choice as being ‘just a chicken salad pitta Nancy, what’s the big deal?!” , but really, that is all it is! In terms of fat content, a well-made kebab is right at the back of the queue. Lean meat, loads of veggies, flatbread and a lick of yogurt. It’s hardly sinful. And if you’re not too inebriated to notice, the complexity of flavours in your mouth is just fantastic – the piquancy of the marinade mixing with the smoky meat, the cool yogurt and the sharp, vinegar hit of the pickles. It knocks cheesey chips into a cocked hat any day.
So let’s not leave the kebab to languish in the alleyway of drunken regret any longer. If you are lucky enough to live near a good Lebanese or Turkish restaurant, try it for dinner. They’re always reasonably priced, and you really won’t be disappointed. Just steer clear of the establishments where the clientele are singing rugby songs…