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Kebab Odyssey

From pages of Homer’s Odyssey to modern Iraq, kebab remains widely popular and truly socially cross-cutting food

Kebab is an essential part of the Erbil food scene. I believe this is one of the most prosaic dish you can have in the world – by the end of the day it’s meat stuck on a skewer and roasted over fire. The devil’s in details and the art of kebab has been cultivated and mastered over centuries. In fact, the descriptions of skewering strips of meat for broiling in Homer’s Odyssey must count for an early shish kebab.

According to various sources Erbilian kebab is distinctive when it comes to its taste and smell. Many associate that with good quality of local meat. If you think about it, the Kurdish cattle is often bred in the mountains gamboling around the hills. The pastoral culture of Kurdistan removes the ground for any mass production of meat. This being the case, ensures that animals are relaxed and lead their happy lives, at least until the halal killing.

Kebab is more than just a food, it became a part of culture accompanying people in the Middle East for ages. Think how many important decisions were taken over the table set with kebab. Many food never surpasses the social class boundaries and is consumed either by wealthy or poor part of the society. In terms of kebab, it’s a truly socially cross-cutting food. Shared and enjoyed by everyone regardless of their status. Its prosaic character contributes to its spread across the world given that currently kebab is very popular both in Asia, as well as in the Occident (just to add an Orientalist touch to this article).

The devil’s in the detail – they say. And so is the case with kebab.

Chef at the kebab stand near the Citadel’s Mechko cafe mentions that good kebab depends on:

  • Quality of meat: either lamb or beef;
  • Water content – water is an enemy of kebab – he states. And if you ever had kebab at this place, you’re petrified once you hear this statement. So does it mean they don’t wash it? No worries, a second after the kebabji (kebab man) explains that indeed the meat is washed and then dried before roasting. This trick gives meat a nice brown crisp on the outside gently surrendering once bitten to expose its inner tenderness.
  • Thickness of meat layer on the skewer itself,
  • Roasting technique.

A friend of mine, who turned out to be kebab connoisseur, argues that ratio of meat to fat factors to the final result. Here in Erbil it’s usually 2 portions of meat to 1 of fat, where more fat means juicier meat that will keep your satiety level high for a long time.

Erbilian kebab usually don’t contain any spices. It’s the art of simplicity that makes it tasty. Temperature of your grill is as important as every other step. In Erbil you wait until it’s bright red, no sooner, no later than this.

Sources mention that kebab was born in what is now known as Turkey, where hungry Turkic soldiers stuck pieces of meat on their swords and roasted it over fire.  The word kebab is supposedly derived from the Persian word “kabab” meaning “fry”. The word was first mentioned in a Turkish script of Kyssa-i Yusuf in 1377, which is the oldest known Turkish source where kebab is mentioned as a food. However, the word has the equivalent meaning of “frying/burning” with “kabābu” in the old Akkadian language, and “kbabā/כבבא” in Aramaic.

However, another source (questionably reliable) states it was first made in Aleppo, Syria. Despite of its country origin, Turkey is supposed to truly master the art of kebab and make it a high-craft.

Personally, I do enjoy Erbilian kebab every now and then. There are few places around the town where you can find decent kebab despite the fact that they look more like a ramshackle and sometimes seem very dodgy (In fact, they are). The best hint of the food explorer is to stick to crowded places. It gives you an idea that the place is probably well established, and what’s more important, its customers don’t get food poisoning frequently. Otherwise they wouldn’t come back. In addition to this, large number of customers makes you think that they use all the meat they have that day, so it’s supposedly fresh.

Of course, these are all just assumptions.

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