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New award celebrates Britain's best kebabs

You can't always be sure what you're getting when you opt for a doner, but a new award aims to change that. Jamie Merrill samples Britain's best kebab.

Most of us have been guilty of it. It's late at night, you've had one or two pints of lager too many and on the way back from the pub you stumble past a brightly lit "elephant leg" in a kebab-shop window. You succumb to greasy temptation and scrabble around for the shrapnel in your pocket before diving at a collection of limp salad, stale pita and dubious doner meat.

It shouldn't be like this. A proper Turkish kebab – roast lamb and spices served with rice and a salad – is drawn from the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. It should be an enjoyable snack you look forward to enjoying sitting down to, not walking home from the pub with.

For once, though, I'm eating a proper kebab; what's even odder is it's daylight and I'm sober. I'm in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton at Turkish Delight, which was crowned the best kebab shop in the country at the British Kebab Awards this year. The awards are the work of the Centre for Turkey Studies and dozens of members of Parliament who nominated takeaways in their constituencies.

It's a busy Saturday night and the head chef and owner of Turkish Delight, Deniz Dikgoz, is welcoming. He's clearly proud at his restaurant's award: "A great kebab is all about the quality and freshness of your ingredients, using salt and fat sparingly and getting the combination of herbs and spices just right."

Dikgoz's doner creation is sublime. I bring along a few friends and we all agree that it's unlike any doner we've ever tasted. The salad is fresh and crisp and the chilli sauce sharp, but it's the lamb meat that most impresses us. It isn't greasy and actually tastes of lamb. The chunks of meat in the shish kebabs are even better, with just the right amount of fat running through them.

Dikgoz tells me Turkish Delight has been in the family for 27 years and that since he took over several years ago he's tried put his own stamp on it: "I call what I do Turkish with a twist, so I care a lot about presentation but also the quality of the meat I use. That means I butcher all my own meat and for the doners I only use meat from the shoulder and breast of lamb. It all comes from one abattoir in Stoke-on-Trent that sources its meat from local Peak District farms."

This is the sort foodie care and attention you might expect from a swanky restaurant, but the doners at Turkish Delight start from just £3.90. Kebabs are big business, though: according to statistics compiled by the awards, the industry employs 70,000 people, in more than 17,000 outlets, with a turnover of £2.2bn a year.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon who helped organise the awards, is keen to celebrate the stories behind each establishment. "The kebab industry is worth £2.2bn a year to the British economy and it's very much dominated by small and medium-sized family businesses," he says. "These are the sort of people who deserve a pat on the back because they work all hours to provide what has become a staple diet for many of us in the way the curry has."

This political involvement has certainly raised the award's profile, but it has also thrown up some odd results. One regional winner was The Alternative Take Away in the Cumbrian town of Wigton. It was nominated by its local Conservative MP, Rory Stewart. He told me that he'd spent half an hour in there chatting to one of the Farsi-speaking employees "while they made me a fresh pizza and seamlessly handled takeaways, drop-ins with grace and cheerfulness".

But the Alternative Takeaway only scores one out of five in the Food Standard Agency's hygiene-rating scheme. In London, the Archway Kebab House, also a regional winner, is spotlessly clean (and tasty) but when I visited it seemed no more special than many other London shops. It was nominated by local Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who tells me he nominated it for its "falaffel wraps" which are a "great piece of sustainable nourishment".

There is a dark side to the industry, though. In 2009 a major study by food standards officers found the average kebab contained 98 per cent of our recommended daily salt intake and 148 per cent of the saturated fat. And it found that 15 per cent of lamb kebabs tested positive for beef. Other supposedly Halal kebabs tested positive for pork. This isn't surprising when kebab shops can make big savings if they use cut-price meat. For example, a 10kg bag of lamb kebab meat costs about £35 wholesale, whereas a "meat" doner kebab cone with a mixture of lamb, beef and mechanically separated chicken costs from £16.99.

The awards, Zahawi says, are about celebrating excellence but also about "raising standards". This already seems to be happening and James Ramsden, a food writer who runs The Secret Larder supper club, is optimistic: "The kebab industry is slowly starting to be seen as more of a valid food rather than just something to fill your belly and soak up booze after midnight. Actually, when you boil it down to its constituent ingredients of good meat, tasty bread and fresh vegetables, the kebab is a really wonderful food."

Ramsden, who last summer ran the Kebab Kitchen roaming market stall selling kebabs, adds: "Broadly it fits with a theme we are seeing for food to get more democratic as we move away from a world of people having to go a restaurant with starched white table linen and silverware for good food. Kebabs, in theory, are a treat at a fair price that everyone can enjoy."

Back at Turkish Delight, the kebab shop and sit-down restaurant are buzzing by early evening. Regulars Ian and Sarah Chesworth echo Ramsden's take on the kebab: "You can just tell it's far healthier and less laden with fat than other takeaways and we know we can enjoy something really tasty for under a tenner. There aren't many places you can say that these days."

The doner: A slice of history

The first kebab shop in the UK is thought to have opened in Stoke Newington in 1966, but it was not until the 1971 that the doner made its entrance. It was invented by Mahmut Agyun. He was born in Turkey and moved to Germany and took the kebab and made it mobile. Traditionally it had been served with rice, but in a moment if inspiration Aygun saw that the future lay in putting the meat inside a pitta bread, allowing those who had been drinking to stumble off into the night with their food.