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Prima doners: The kebab gets a culinary makeover

Forget eating them at the end of the night – they should be the main event, says Alice Jones.
  • @alicevjones

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 and tearing into foil-wrapped doners while 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 or 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. Sharing an 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 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 to Germany or Australia, the quality is often very good indeed. Britain is unique for having truly terrible kebabs on the high street. I remember one van when I was at university where they used a kind of barbershop hair trimmer to shave the pink slimy meat off."

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 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, plus dangerous levels of pink dye, was the norm. There have been good news stories – just last month, James Hobbs's life was saved when he used his midnight kebab to stem the bleeding when he was stabbed on his way home from a night out – but they rarely make the food pages.

Until now. 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, north London 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 FM Mangal in Camberwell received a rave review in The Independent on Sunday.

Ramsden and Thring began the serious matter of research by dining out in these and other kebab restaurants across the capital, focusing particularly in the Turkish zones 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. It was 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 in a handy portable pita pocket for the first time.

Having sampled shawarma in Istanbul, chowed down on chillies in Izmir and guzzled lamb for breakfast in Gaziantep, Ramsden and Thring returned with ideas for an "Eastern-ish" street food, 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. In time they hope to cook over wood but for now, they are conjuring the flavour of the open fire with smoked salt seasoning and smoky chilli sauces.

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 eventually settled on khobez, a round, chewy flatbread that softens just enough when held against a 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 – it almost justified the trip to Turkey in itself," Ramsden says.

If it all sounds a bit Heston, 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. It's ideal as a lunch food or supper as well."

So far, Kebab Kitchen has stopped off at StockMKT, a roving night-time 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 great chance for young talents to get a taste of running a restaurant without the overheads. "I love the connection that you get from buying the food from somebody who has prepared it themselves and cooked it in front of you," Thring says. "It has a nice immediacy to it. From a vendor's point of view, I like seeing people's reactions when they eat the food. It's very fulfilling."

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.

To find out where Kebab Kitchen will be serving next, go to kebabkitchenlondon.co.uk