Istanbul also has its own centuries-old kebab tradition, which is witnessed by miniatures, engravings and certain old books. Among the illustrations of 19th century life available to us today, old postcards bear images of the kebab trade. This kebab is the familiar chunks of meat (sheep, rabbit, chicken, pheasant, pigeon, quail etc.) placed on a spit and roast over the coals. To this main type of kebab we may add döner, köfteli kebabs and tandır kebabs. The kebabs of the East Mediterranean and the Southeast did not make their appearance in Istanbul until the 1940s.
Kebab chefs from the south who settled in Istanbul named their foods after the cities from which they came. These names are purely for the benefit of the customer. For example kebab by a chef from Adana is called “Adana kebabı;” that of a chef from Urfa, “Urfa kebabı,” etc. These names eventually became the accepted names of these kebabs. A mincemeat kebab with no hot pepper is called “Urfa kebabı,” one with hot pepper is known as “Adana kebabı.” This has now affected their home regions, and the names have practically become “trademarked.” However despite these names which have emerged in Istanbul, the people in those regions mostly still use their local names: acılı kıyma kebabı, acısız kıyma kebabı etc. The masters themselves have also resisted this change, but this has been going on for so long now that even in Adana and Urfa the names they have gained in Istanbul have begun to appear.
What is good kebab? In short, it should be flavorful and filling, but it should not be heavy on the stomach. The most important factor here is the choice of meat. The most idea meat for kebab is from female sheep from 1-1.5 years of age that have not yet mated, or male sheep. Various beliefs circulate among those in the profession: for example, a male kıvırcık (a breed of sheep) has good meat, but a male karaman does not. On the other hand, the following must be said: both of these breeds have certain seasons in which their meat is good. When they are fed with oilcake or sugar beet their meats are very dense but flavorless. Flavorful meat is produced by natural grazing.
It is the butcher that will care for the meat the best; good meat comes from a butcher. When the animal comes from the slaughterhouse, the butcher drains all the blood out and leaves it to rest a day in the refrigerator. Then he takes the meat which the kebab chef wants and divides it into meat for kuşbaşı and mincemeat. Kuşbaşı must be marinated in spices, milk or pepper paste. But if the meat is extremely good it does not even need marinating.
Meat for kebab must be cleaned of its sinews and fat, although those who like fatty meat may have it cut that way. The marinade for kuşbaşı without pepper is made of milk, onion juice, salt, whole black pepper, bay leaf and olive oil. The marinade for hot kuşbaşı is made of tomato-pepper paste, garlic, black pepper, thyme, yogurt and olive oil. The meat must be refrigerated in the marinade for one day.
Fatty kuşbaşı must be cut into pieces as is and placed straight onto the spits. It is salted late in the grilling process.
Kebabs should be cooked over oak embers, and should never be allowed to dry out. Good kebab is made the same day as it is prepared, because by the time the meat gets to you it is already two or three days old, and in a few days will become inedible.
The first factor in a good or bad kebab is the choice of meat. The main causes of/ingredients in bad kebab are:
From the above five choices (there are plenty more examples), kebab itself cannot be made, let alone good kebab.
Let us observe the five-day journey of meat for the main three kebabs:
1st day: When the plain mince meat, that is the “Urfa” meat is not sold,
2nd day: it is mixed with red pepper and transformed into “Adana” kebab. If it doesn’t sell that day,
3rd day: It is mixed with garlic, black pepper and parsley and sold as “beyti.” If that doesn’t sell,
4th day: It is proferred with tomatoes and pepper paste as “special wrapped beyti.” And if that doesn’t sell,
5th day: they say “It’s tantalizing meat lahmacun, dammit, I’m going to feed this to you one way or another!” Or they use it to fill stuffed köfte.
In short, one way or another the kebapçı uses up his meat.What a pity it is that those who commonly practice such means include some known as “good kebab shops.”
Kebab In The Old Days
In the old kebab shops, the meat, which had been deboned but was otherwise unchanged, hung on a hook to the left of the shop door. Next to the grill along one wall was the zom and a scale. The customer told the cook the amount of meat he wanted. The cook would weigh the meat, and if the order was for mincemeat, he put the meat on the zom and minced it on the spot with the zırh; if it was for kuşbaşı, he would cut it into the appropriate size, put it onto the spit, grill it and hand it to the customer.
All these procedures were carried out the moment the customer gave the order.
Every kebab was eaten in its own unique way, and the customer knew what should be eaten and drunk with which kebab. The kebab chef did not enjoy selling to a customer who didn’t understand kebab. For example, if the customer ordered eggplant kebab with cacık on the side, or wanted pepper paste on it, the chef would say “I don’t make kebab for people who don’t know how to eat it,” and either ushered him out of the shop or taught him how it should be eaten.
Offal - that is, liver, heart, kidneys and lungs - were never sold in a kebab shop; besides they were forbidden. And those who deal in offal never sold meat kebab.
The most important characteristic of the liver kebab shops was that they began serving between 3 and 4 o’clock, and closed between 8 and 9 o’clock the next morning, then began their preparations for the next day and were always closed before noon.
Meat kebab shops on the other hand did their morning prep work from 9-10:00, and after their noon service, closed between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. The customers who bought liver kebab were mostly villagers going out to their fields, workers and porters.
Generally all the offal came to the liver kebab cooks immediately after slaughter, and were used up that day. The liver sat on the skewers. A few livers were kept whole in a screen cabinet for their epicurean customers. When the customer came, it was cut, placed on the spit and cooked. In this way, the liver didn’t lose its blood, and would be moister and fresher. These customers generally ate well and paid extra for this privilege. At liver kebab shops almost everyone at standing up, while at meat kebab places, people sat to eat.
Just as with bakeries, kebab shops were places where people both filled their stomachs and enjoyed themselves. They told both off-color and acceptable jokes here, played light and more “heavy” jokes, which were enjoyed by both the perpetrators and the butt of the jokes. In this sense, wit has always been an inseparable part of kebab culture.