Portraits of Europe's Most Popular Kebabs
Photo : Rebecca Camphens.
It can be difficult to navigate a European city you've never visited before. There's the language barrier, the incomprehensible public transport system, the confusing cultural customs, and the underlying fear that everyone might kinda hate foreigners.
When faced with such uncertainty, something that can provide much needed comfort is the neon-lit sight of a kebab shop. "People eat kebabs here, it can't be that different," you think, excitedly counting out unfamiliar coins. As you take your first bite of meat and bread, you realise that it tastes just like anything you'd have back home on a Friday night … actually, wait, what's in this sauce? Do they put cabbage in kebabs in here? And how did they make the hummus taste like that?
Thanks to waves of migration from Turkey and the Middle East, kebabs are a popular late-night snack pretty much everywhere in Europe, but their fillings, sauces, and accompanying carbs are as diverse as the people who live there. We decided to speak to VICE editors from across the Continent about how kebabs are eaten in their home country, and find out what it is about strips of meat covered in hot sauce and encased in bread that speaks to people across country lines.
After all, at a time when growing nationalism threatens to divide Europe, we could do with finding things that bring us together—even if that is greasy drunk food.
In Germany, we eat 122,000 tons of döner every year and there are around 15,000 döner restaurants in our country. The one pictured above is bought from Hasir, one of the Turkish restaurants that claim to be the inventor of the döner in Germany. It has been serving kebabs since the 1970s at the famous Kottbusser Tor—the most Turkish district in Berlin.
There's no evidence of which restaurant first served döner in Germany. Some guy has been claiming for years that he invented this version of meat in a flatbread, but he died before anybody could prove his statement. But döner was definitely made big by German Turkish migrant workers and has been a typical German fast food ever since.
The most classic version of döner kebap in Germany has roasted wheat flatbread with sesame on top. The meat is strictly regulated in Germany. To call your product "döner," it has to contain only calf meat and beef in big pieces, with no more than 60-percent minced meat. So at least 40-percent of the meat has to be in fillets. You mostly get green salad, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, and red cabbage as the vegetable component. The most common kebab sauces are kräuter [herbs and yogurt], knoblauch [garlic], and scharf [hot sauce]. The most common vegetarian option is halloumi, but other common veggie döners are with sheep cheese or falafel.
Memo, owner of the Döner Shop in Alexanderplatz, Berlin told me: "In Berlin, we mostly sell the classic döner with all three sauces. Only on Friday, people leave the garlic sauce and the onions away."
Daniel Frevel, VICE Germany contributor.
The Netherlands has some classic döner dishes, ranging from roasted pork to chicken, but there is nothing that people love to bury their drunk faces in more than a kapsalon. It's an aluminium foil tray filled with 1,800 calories of greasy pleasure. Picture fries topped with chicken, lamb, or pork shawarma, topped with melted Gouda cheese, topped with salad, topped with garlic sauce and sambal. It is a killer mishmash of every delicious snack you've ever dreamed of.
And do you know who we have to thank for this? A hairdresser from Rotterdam. Roughly 13 years ago, a guy called Nataniël Gomes made a habit out of ordering a lunch dish containing all of his favourite ingredients at the snackbar around down the street from his shop. The people working there started referring to his strange order as "a kapsalon" (which literally translates to "a hairdresser") and soon everyone in the neighbourhood started ordering it. It quickly became the drunk food of the gods in the Netherlands. There is a yearly competition called "The Golden Kapsalon," and food trucks even make culinary versions with kimchi and short rib beef during festival season.
Unesco World Heritage, where are you? This thing urgently needs a spot on your list. Thanks.
Stefanie Staelens, MUNCHIES Netherlands Editor.
Kebabs were introduced to the Swedes by Turkish immigrants in the early 80s and have since become one of our most popular junk foods, alongside hamburgers and pizza. Our kebabs are often made and served in pitta or flatbread filled with slices of meat, salad, onion, tomato, bell peppers, herbs (such as parsley), and sauce.
The sauce itself is an important ingredient and there are several different options. In the Stockholm area, you have red and white sauce, while in other parts of Sweden, you get the kebab sauce, which is based on sour cream, mayonnaise, chili sauce, sambal oelek [a chili sauce found in Malaysian and Thai cooking], garlic, kebab spice, salt, and pepper.
Even though the most common kebab in Sweden is a version of the classic döner, you are able to find both shish and shawarma all over the country. Other kebab-inspired dishes include the kebab pizza (the most popular pizza in Sweden), kebab roll, and kebab plate—typically served with fries but it also comes with bulgur wheat or rice.
Over the years, there have been a few innovative people trying to push the culinary limits by creating stuff like the caviar kebab roll, the halloumi kebab, or this maxed-out 17.5-kilo mega kebab roll.
The dish is an excellent choice, whether you're in desperate need for something filling after some heavy drinking or if you just need a quick lunch—like our former Minister of Finance Anders Borg, who chose to eat his kebab while being interviewed.
The best way to wash down this lovely meal is with optional soft drink or Ayran [the Turkish yogurt drink].
John-David Ritz, VICE Sweden contributor.
The average Danish kebab— durumrulle ("durum roll") or durum for short—is a fairly straightforward affair. Lettuce, tomatoes, plain dressing, chili, and the meat or filling of your choosing—usually lamb, chicken, falafel, or some mix thereof—swiftly and neatly rolled together in a thin durum wheat pancake.
As is the case in most other European nations, you're never really more than a couple of miles from the nearest kebab place, no matter where you are in Denmark. The specimen depicted here was purchased at Grill House, right off of Nørrebrogade, a street in Copenhagen with more kebab joints per square foot than anywhere in the country.
In 1980, in a time when sorely needed migrant workers flocked to the country, the first ever Danish shawarma place appeared on Copenhagen's high street Strøget, where the Lebanese brothers Mounzer took over and converted a traditional grill food joint. Today, most Danish kebab joints are run by Danes with Turkish backgrounds, with the more specialised places using real Turkish ovens to cook the meat on spears, offering Turkish bread (sort of a thick, crispy baguette, instead of the standard durum pancake), and the added extra of hummus.
As a society, we absolutely cherish pork, and have always had a very rich hot dog culture. Before kebabs stole the hearts and munchies-ridden stomachs of drunken Danes everywhere, dog variants like the classic ristet med det hele ("roasted with everything," meaning a roasted hot dog in a bun with mustard, ketchup, remoulade, raw and toasted onion, and marinated cucumber salad) and the one-handable fransk hotdog ("French hot dog," a hotdog stuffed into a cylindrical bread with only one hole, with the lubrication of your choice)—as well as other deep-fried commodities like the rural grill joint favourite, en halv ørn i rede (or "a half eagle in nest"), meaning half a fried chicken with a side of fries—were our country's go-to drunk food. The kebab's status as late-night snack of choice was cemented in the mid-2000s, with this annoyingly catchy and borderline stereotype-promoting cult song, " Kan jeg få kebab?" ("Can I get kebab?")
One of the biggest scandals in recent Danish kebab history occurred in 2013, when traces of pork were discovered in meat from the country's largest kebab manufacturer, Anadolu, leading to an outcry from the Danish Muslim community. Luckily, the rogue pig bits were discovered and intercepted by the Danish Food Administration before reaching stores.
Alfred Maddox, VICE Denmark contributor.
Although modern Poland is one of the most ethnically uniform countries in Europe, kebabs have been evolving into our national food at least since the late 90s, when they replaced the Vietnamese spring rolls, American hot dogs, and hamburgers as well as home-grown zapiekanki and mushroom rolls as the late-night snack of choice. We love them so much that one kebab shop was even granted the "Best Restaurant in Poland" award by the biggest delivery website, as a result of a popular vote.
The fall of the People's Republic and the re-unification of Germany allowed many Poles to travel for work, with Berlin and its suburbs becoming a popular destination. Being cheap and filling, the Berlin-style kebab became a synonymous with German cuisine for these ex-pat Poles (sorry, Currywurst) and many brought a taste for it back home, along with the Deutsche Marks in their pockets.
The most typical Polish kebab consists of the meat (chicken, beef or—less commonly—lamb), puffy flatbread or tortilla, cabbage salad, and a mixture of garlic sauce and harissa. But you never really know what you'll get. Onions or Polish-style pickled cucumbers are also popular ingredients.
A meat-and-bread-only version of the kebab is also quite popular here, as we're a nation of meat-eaters. The quality of industrial meat, however, is slightly questionable. Wholesale prices in Poland are as low as 2 Euros per kilo and there have been food safety scandals involving illegal kebab meat factories in the tunnels below Warsaw's central train station.
Nobody gives a shit though and kebab is here to stay. Even the Polish far-righters, traditionally hostile towards the country's small Muslim population, have recently changed their rhetoric from waving "No kebab, I prefer a pork cutlet" banners to supporting Poles who run their own kebab shops.
Oh, and we've also got one shop that sells two-metre long kebabs if you're feeling adventurous.
Maciek Piasecki, VICE Poland Editor.
In recent years, shaorma or shawarma kebabs have become the best and only street food you can find in Romania. They were brought here in the 80s by a Lebanese student who came to study neurology during the Communist regime, and ended up founding a cheap fast food chain. His dream was to compete with the Turkish döner, which was already popular in Europe.
Ever since then, the Syrian, Palestinian, and Turkish communities in Romania have added to its perfection. Even major food chains like McDonald's and KFC have had to adapt and offer their customers these wrapped bundles of mayo and joy. The kebab phenomena is so great that it even led to "hipster" stuff like quinoa kebabs.
Nowadays, a lot of Romanians have started making their own kebabs at home, with marinated shawarma meat bought from halal butcher shops run by Muslims. The funniest thing is that if you want to buy a gas oven in Romania, you'll have to make a real effort to find one without a kebab roasting spear right in the middle (all the cheapest ones have them).
My favourite kebab has shredded chicken breast, onions, green salad, hot peppers, and pickles—all wrapped up in Lebanese pitta. The deluxe versions come with beef or turkey and contain fresh herbs.
But what makes Romania's take on the kebab better than those I've tasted around Europe is the array of sauces we offer: curry, mayo, garlic, hot ketchup, sesame, and olive. It's like eating a fatty, chewy rainbow of delights, which unites the Eastern and Western schools of oily fast food.
Mihai Popescu, VICE Romania Senior Editor
This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.