In recent years, kebabs in Britain have been going relentlessly upmarket. For a mere £925, Canary Wharf’s bankers can sample an offering from chef Önder Sahan made from the finest Wagyu beef, which he calls the best money can buy. Nor is posh pitta just for the super-rich. Le Bab in Soho peddles roe deer shish with cavolo nero kimchi, while the website of Clerkenwell’s Chifafa trumpets a newspaper review proclaiming its fare to be ‘a world away from their downmarket cousins’. We who have lived through the upscale fish and chips fad — remember Michelin-starred chef Simon Haigh’s £304 Dover sole, with vintage champagne crispy batter and sandwiched in truffle? — can now rejoice in a prima döner.
But why would you want to, when the real, no frills deal can be found on just about any British high street? Proper kebab shops, havens of immigrant entrepreneurship, are often the only light on in many streets at 3am, flickering behind names such as McDoner’s (Archway, now with a new name following legal letters) or Jason Donervan (Bristol, flourishing). And they do more than just offer sustenance to undergraduates and other late night revellers. Kebabs contribute £2.2 billion to the British economy every year, according to İbrahim Doğuş, who founded the British Kebab Awards, which took place at the Park Plaza Westminster hotel in last month. Britain’s 20,000 kebab shops provide 200,000 jobs, and beget 1.3 million kebabs a day, he adds.
It may have been 1966, in London’s Newington Green, when Çetin Bukey and Kojay Hüsey first put kebab into bread on these shores. Döner meat had been roasted on a vertical spit for at least a century before in Anatolia. Newly portable, the döner went everywhere: to Germany with Turkish immigrants and, as gyros sandwiches, from Athens to Chicago and New York.
British fans of no nonsense kebabs were, unsurprisingly, in great supply at the British Kebab Awards. Lord Bilmoria, the founder of Cobra Beer and first Parsi peer, who as an Indian-born student in London in the 1980s, tells me he ‘absolutely loves’ kebabs and that he used to go to Marylebone High Street for them.
For him, they celebrate Britain’s vibrancy and cosmopolitanism, and its entrepreneurship. ‘I love them and whenever I get the opportunity I do eat them—you’ll get a combination of protein, salad, and bread and in a balanced meal that is freshly prepared, hot and delicious,’ he says.
What is the secret to the perfect kebab? Resul Atalay, namesake of Atalay’s Kebab Van, which first pitched up in Thame, Oxfordshire, in 1988, has a very strong sense. And he should know, having won the Best Kebab Van award at the ceremony.
‘Keep it simple,’ he says, describing the ideal kebab as containing plenty of salt ‘and a secret recipe sauce, made from tomato purée.’ The meat, he adds, should be decent shoulder and breast cuts of lamb, even though going for the better cuts makes for a tight profit margin.
Atalay, who runs his kebab vans with his twin sons, says he keeps his business ticking over thanks to his regular customers, and he calls feeding them ‘more than a business’. We often bond with the people who feed us late at night, when we are tired and possibly also emotional. In a way that Americans are meant to with bartenders. And I hear countless other examples of the kindness of the kebab man.
One story comes from Poppy McKenzie Smith, originally from Fife, who says kebab van owner Ahmed Semlali discovered her lost passport and sent it to her in Scotland. ‘I also once attacked him with a blow up rubber dolphin following a rowing dinner – in a good natured way,’ she adds.
Hassan Elouhabi, already a veteran kebab van owner at the age of just 22, says he learnt the noble art ‘from his dad back home in Morocco’, and explains how he treasures memories like the time someone proposed to his girlfriend outside his van.
I must here declare an interest and admit that Hassan’s is my local kebab shop, in Oxford’s Broad Street. Earlier this year, it was pleasing to see a backlash when the unfortunately named upstarts Fanny’s attempted to bring ‘posh kebabs’ to Stoke Newington. Kebabs and kebab shops are the antithesis of gentrification. Long may Hassan, and other establishments like his, continue to sustain us.