It can be hard to keep up with the faddish rules of gastronomy – to foam or not to foam? – but any fool knows that one should never visit a kebab van in daylight hours. And yet, it's Friday night, not even 7.30pm, and hungry young men and women are crowding around a rickety table on Bermondsey Square in south London, ignoring the buzzy tapas bars, upmarket Italians and artisan bakeries nearby, tearing into foil-wrapped doners and dribbling chilli sauce on their ties. Not a single pint has been downed.
The reason for this unseemly behaviour is Kebab Kitchen, a new roaming market stall that is taking the often derided late-night snack upmarket and to the streets. The spinning "elephant leg" of juicy meat looks familiar to anyone who has ever walked through a British town centre in the wee hours, but these are no ordinary doners. These are West Country lamb and chicken doners, served with red cabbage pickled in pomegranate molasses, onions steeped in sumac, crunchy tomato salsa, smoked garlic yoghurt and roasted habanero chilli sauce. And they are delicious.
The venture is the brainchild of two young London-based food writers: James Ramsden, 26, who runs The Secret Larder supper club from his flat and published his first cookbook Small Adventures in Cooking last year; and Oliver Thring, 28, a regular on the food pages of newspapers and magazines and two-time nominee for the Guild of Food Writers New Media award. Discovering a shared enthusiasm for the street food movement that has seen gastronomes lining the pavements to queue for posh burgers from Meatwagon, banh mis from Banh mi 11 and "haute-dogs" from The Dogfather, they cooked up a plan to give the humble doner its moment in the sun.
"You say 'kebab' and people think '10 pints of beer, 2am and elephant leg'," Ramsden says. "But when you get down to it, a kebab is just decent bread, nice meat and fresh salad. We thought that we could change attitudes towards them and show how amazingly delicious and healthy they can be."
"Which is how they're seen across the rest of the world, after all," Thring adds. "If you go to Turkey, or even to Germany or Australia, the quality is often very good indeed. Britain is unique for having truly terrible kebabs."
It's true that in the UK, the doner, more beer sponge than delicacy and often the greasy climax of a night's binge drinking, has suffered a bad press for many years. A particularly fatty pita might contain up to 2,000 calories (an entire day's worth), along with 98 per cent of the RDA of salt and 148 per cent of saturated fat. Last month, an investigation by trading-standards officers in Warwickshire discovered that out of 20 "lamb" kebabs tested, not one contained just lamb. A concoction of lamb, beef, pork and poultry, mixed with dangerous levels of pink dye, was the norm.
Times are changing and even restaurant critics are cottoning on to the joy of the kebab as a cheap, delicious, all-in-one evening meal. E Mono in Kentish Town has been packed since the famously hard-to-please Giles Coren called it "the coolest restaurant of the year" a few months ago, while last month in The Independent on Sunday, FM Mangal in Camberwell received a rave review.
Ramsden and Thring began their research by dining out in these and many more kebab restaurants across the capital, focusing on the Turkish areas of north London, from Abu Zaad on the Uxbridge Road to Mangal 1 on Arcola Street. Then it was off to Turkey, home of the doner. Mentions of the food can be found in Ottoman travel journals dating back to the 18th century when travelling tribesman would grill meat on their swords: "doner kebab" translates literally as "rotating roast".
The doner as Binge Britain knows and loves it has more prosaic origins, invented by Mahmut Aygun, a Turkish émigré who moved to Germany in the 1970s and opened a stall serving the skewered meat of his homeland. His legendary innovation was to serve it in a portable pita pocket.
Ramsden and Thring returned to London with ideas for an "Eastern-ish" street food delicacy, which would combine the taste of Turkey with great British ingredients. Lamb shoulder comes from the West Country and chicken thighs from Suffolk. The meat is marinated for several days before being built on to the spit, in whole pieces, rather than minced lumps. Eventually they hope to cook over wood but in the meantime, they conjure the flavour of the open fire with smoked salt seasoning and smoked chilli sauce.
It's this attention to detail that sets Kebab Kitchen apart. The bread alone provoked weeks of debate. "Almost the very first thing we said was that we wouldn't do pita bread", Ramsden says. "It doesn't make sense – it sits in the bottom of your tray and by the time you get to it, you're too full or you've passed out." They settled on khobez, a round, chewy flatbread that softens just enough when held against the hot spit to allow for wrapping.
As for the extras – forget a dollop of acrid garlic sauce, tastebud-stripping chilli and off-putting rubbery pickle. "We wanted to go a level up from your standard kebab shop," Ramsden says. "We thought we'd take those principles but gussy them up a little." As such, the onion is marinated in lemon juice, parsley and sumac (a tart purple spice); the red cabbage is pickled in pomegranate molasses for a flavour of the Middle East; and the cucumber and tomato salsa is seasoned with red wine vinegar and nigella (black onion) seeds. There's smoked garlic yoghurt and a choice of two chilli sauces – one mild and one hot, but not devilishly so. The pièce de résistance is a whole roasted chilli, which sits down the middle of the wrap giving a little smoky heat with each bite. "The crucial element," Ramsden says.
The kebabs are still good value at £4.50 for a medium or £6 for a large. "It's all very well to go on about how you're using the best ingredients and then say that the kebab costs £15.99. People are going to laugh at you," Thring says. The idea is to reclaim the kebab as a delicious anytime, anywhere snack. "It's a cousin of the sandwich and the wrap."
So far, Kebab Kitchen has stopped off at StockMKT, a roving night food market, the Real Food Market on the Southbank and various pubs and private parties. It's already drawing crowds keen to sample fine cooking on a budget, with the added glow that comes from being in the know. "It's very democratic eating. You don't get sat at a rubbish table or looked at strangely by the maître d'. You're paying what you'd pay if you went to chain sandwich shop – less in some cases," Ramsden says. The street food venture is also a chance for young talents to get a taste of running a restaurant business without the overheads.
For now, there is only one thing missing – drink. In Turkey, turnip juice is apparently a traditional accompaniment to the doner. "We may start doing raki," Thring says. "It's quite lethal and the aniseed goes quite nicely with kebab." It's good business practice, too: a few glasses of the fiendishly strong spirit and Kebab Kitchen is likely to have people returning for second helpings before the night is out.
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