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Behold the Creamy, Tomatoey Goodness of a Turkish Iskender Kebab

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Critic Robert Sietsema digs into the history of a classic Turkish recipe

A black facade with a wheelchair ramp running up to the front door.
Beyti is located in Union City, NJ, a short bus ride from the Port Authority, except during rush hours.

Not all Turkish restaurants serve it, but for those that do, Iskender kebab is often the best thing on the menu. The kitchen cuts the bread into perfect cubes and tumbles them onto a plate. Butter is sprinkled over the top, soaking the cubes. Then, a thick layer of doner kebab gets laid on top. Iskender kebab — composed of chopped lamb on a rotating cylinder glued together with fat and herbs — exudes the most heavenly odor. Next, the plate gets sluiced with tomato sauce and yogurt, making for a delectable gut bomb. A grilled green chile finishes it off, like an invitation to a dinner party.

The best version I’ve had lately comes from Beyti, a restaurant founded in 1981 and named after another wonderful kebab. Located in Union City, New Jersey, up on the cliffs across the Hudson from Hell’s Kitchen, the original owner was Ozcan Arslan, but he sold the restaurant to Ali Riza Dogan, Jonathan Dogan, and Mehmet Akcetin two years ago, who sumptuously redecorated the high-ceilinged room with sky-blue upholstery and Turkish pottery in niches that run around the room. The effect is marred only by big screen TV monitors hung high at the end of the room projecting nerve-soothing landscapes, which makes the place seem a bit like a fancy airport lounge.

A deep dining room with a sky blue motif and Turkish ceramics lining the walls.
The lush interior recalls an airport lounge.

The Iskender kebab, also called a Bursa kebab, was invented by a guy named Iskender Efendi, who lived in the town of Bursa in northwestern Turkey. His family were butchers, and one day in 1867, he and his grandfather were looking for a new way to roast lamb and came up with the idea of a vertical spit with stray pieces of meat wrapped around it to make a tapering cylindrical mass. His family also owned a restaurant, and Iskender Junior later had the idea of using the resultant slices of composed meat — which he termed doner kebab — into a dish using bread, butter, yogurt, and tomato sauce.

A heavily tattooed man slices meat from a vertical spit.
Doner kebab, as served at Berlin Doner.

According to Ayla Algar’s Classical Turkish Cooking (1991), the Iskender kebab as grandly served at the Divan Hotel in Istanbul “calls to mind the bygone splendor of the empire.” She means the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans between the 14th and early 20th centuries. Nowadays, the empire has shrunk to the borders of modern Turkey, and doner has come to identify a pita sandwich invented in Berlin by expat Turkish restaurateur Kadir Nurman in 1972.

That sandwich caught on like wildfire in Germany, where 600 tons of doner meat are reportedly consumed each day. There, it is made on an automated machine of gleaming metal that was inspired by the Iskender invention. The doner kebab cooked thereon also came to be known as gyro in Greece and shawarma in the Middle East, though opinions differ on the sequence of events that led to the other two rotary spitted meats. Lamb cooked in this fashion even traveled to Mexico with Lebanese immigrants in the 1920s, where the product is called al pastor. It spawned a similar rolled sandwich called tacos arabes.

Though shawarma and gyro is ubiquitous in New York, the Iskender is less so. I’ve often seen it made at other Turkish restaurants with the yogurt and tomato sauce commingled. But here, the sauce smothers the copious quantities of sliced meat, lending a mild tang to the lamb, which tastes profoundly of the pasture. The tart, freshly made yogurt attacks from a separate pool on the side, and butter from underneath. Both add infinite richness. Finally, if you look carefully at the picture, you’ll see the cook sprinkled little droplets of butter just before the dish was brought to the table, like an artist signing a painting. No better Iskender kebab can be found in the New York/New Jersey area.

A heap of meat covered in red sauce with a reservoir of yogurt beside it.
Behold the iskender kebab.

[Note: This article has been updated to reflect the restaurant’s current ownership.]


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