Samuel Muston: The great chefs skewering each other at the Kebab Awards
The news that Mangal 2's Ali Dirik won the best chef gong at Tuesday's British Kebab Awards will come as little surprise to artists Gilbert and George. Every night with the regularity of a German express train, the pair pootle up London's Kingsland Road from their house in Spitalfields and dine here, each time going through the same ritual of handing their coats to the waiting staff when they sit (unknown for normal punters) and being helped to put them on again when they rise to leave.
You may be thinking, why do a pair of famous artists with vast wealth spend each evening eating kebabs in north-east London? To which the answer is: because Mangal is brilliant. It is an education in what you can do with meat, a skewer and an exceptionally hot grill. And its regular clientele, among which I number myself, love it with a passion.
I realise loving a doner, shish or kofte might be incomprehensible to some. Because foods, like people, have reputations. Soufflés, for instance, are haughty, flighty and no friend of the Saturday cook; burgers, the food of the dude, are unkempt, oily. Few dishes, though, carry anything like the burden of the kebab. To say it has a bad rep is like saying Hitler was a bit naughty. It is widely perceived as nothing more than a beer soaker-upper, the postscript to a night on the lager.
And to an extent, that characterisation is spot on. Kebab shops contribute £2.2bn to the British economy; and, as you would expect with any "industry" of that size, quality varies. Anyone who has ever spent the evening drinking, found the ever-rotating elephant leg to suddenly take on a mythic appeal and suffered for it the next day, can easily believe that a bad doner can contain up to 98 per cent and 148 per cent, respectively, of your RDA of salt and saturated fat. But it doesn't have to be so.
When Turkish émigré Kadir Nurman invented the doner kebab – also known as a shawarma or gyros – in Berlin in 1972, the meat he served in his salad-filled pittas was not highly processed and indeterminate. What he doled out was a fresh feast for Berliners on the go. And it is to this that the British Kebab Awards hope shop owners will return. Its method of persuasion: big, shiny trophies.
So on Tuesday, the great and the good of the kebab grill met at London's Park Lane Sheraton Hotel to hear the results of the 11-category awards. There were awards for, among others, Efes Navstar in Glasgow, Best Kebab in Southend, Sheesh at Ye Olde Kings Head in Chigwell and, of course, Mangall 2in London's Stoke Newington.
So what elevates their offerings above the town-parade mainstream? According to Ali Dirik, it is simple: ingredients. "A good doner is made from fresh lamb shoulder and breast. It doesn't need processing, only seasoning. It is a simple dish."
Taste Ali's kebabs – which are marinated for 24 hours in milk, yoghurt, onion, peppers and olive oil – and simplicity is not the first thing that comes to mind. The plate comes to your table piled high and steaming. The hillock of glistening meat, accompanied by tomato, onion, rice and billowy bread, is complex: a rich, zingy flavour that needs no accompanying sauce. It is a meaty work of art.
So why not make a new resolution for 2014? Forget the 5:2 diet and check out the winners list below. Channel your inner Gilbert and George, and get yourself one of Kadir Nurman's sublime creations. A bright, kebab-filled vista awaits you.
For a full list of winners, go to: http://bit.ly/1eDroJx
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