If there is a food more maligned than the doner kebab then it remains unknown to my palate.
Long the butt of jokes and the final resort of a hungry lush as he or she stumbles back home from the pub via a neon takeaway, the poor kebab as we know it in England is far removed from its original form.
Sweaty mystery meat sculpted into the famous ‘elephant’s foot’ rotates slowly in front of orange hued heater bulbs behind the counters of less salubrious dining establishments throughout the country. Unimaginably long lengths of it are hacked off and crammed into epic flatbreads or warm pitas before being topped with a token salad of four cucumber rings, some harsh raw onion and a few wedges of watery tomato.
The whole lot is finished with a Russian roulette chilli sauce that ranges from the pathetic to nuclear hot and then eaten with gusto, delight and a side order of late onset guilt.
And it tastes great.
Admittedly the average doner diner is three or even four sheets to the wind by the time they get their laughing gear around this culinary oddity that somehow manages to pack a day’s worth of calories into a single polystyrene box. They are chowed down late at night to sate the deep hunger brought on by overindulgence of the grape and grain’s fine nectar.
I can recall many morning after conversations that have included the phrase ‘I must have been quite pissed – I even had a kebab’ and fondly remember one incident when the distinctive doner niff followed us round for an entire Sunday after a heavy Saturday night. Even a shower and a change of clothes wasn’t enough to quell the odour. It was only when my friend reached into his coat pocket for his wallet and pulled out a length of brown meat that the mystery was solved.
In short kebabs tend to be eaten in haste and regretted at leisure when noxious burps scented with onion exacerbate the hangover. They are the guiltiest of guilty pleasures and a gastronomic punchline for a joke that ceases to be funny at about 6 o’clock the following morning when the belly cramps and the head aches.
But this shouldn’t be the case. In its true form, the doner is a thing of beauty: marinated lamb meat, slow cooked into tender softness – warm with spices and rich with natural fat. Blistered flatbreads with that wonderful gentle bitterness. Heat from chillies tempered with cool salad. Hummus. Yoghurt. These are all good things. Great, wonderful tasty things. And more importantly all things you can achieve at home.
OK – this isn’t a true doner. For that you’d need epic amounts of meat of dubious origin, a large vertical spit, six hours of turning and a hungry mob to consume it all. So we cooked a simplified version which was superior in every way.
Once a lamb shoulder had been boned out and butterflied it was covered with a spice mix containing cumin, coriander, chillies, oregano, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil before being tied up and roasted in the oven over a layer of roughly chopped onions.
Three hours at a low heat was long enough to render the meat tender and almost liquefy the onions.
Whilst it was resting we cooked up a batch of flatbreads, made some hummus and a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, red onion and plenty of parsley.
The lamb meat was shredded with two forks and mixed in with the cooked onions and the fat and juices that had pooled in the bottom of the roasting tray. Heaped into fresh warm flatbreads and then finished off with all the necessary accoutrements it was a meal fit for the gods themselves. Or at least Bacchus.
Photography by Charlotte