During my very first week in Europe, which was years ago while on tour with the Utah Symphony, Shirley and I noticed some street food called Doner Kebabs while strolling through downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia. They looked pretty good, but for some reason we didn’t jump at them right away. Unlike now, we generally weren’t quite as open to street food back in the day, and at the time we knew nothing about these things nor how popular they were around Europe.
But we kept seeing them in every city that the orchestra toured, and a week or so later while in Vienna we finally took the plunge and split one. And then we immediately split another because they were just SO DAMN TASTY! They were like kicked-up versions of Gyros back in the states, which are prepared in similar ways. Within just a couple of days Doner Kebabs had become staples of our diet during the final Germany swing of the tour because not only were they more appealing to us than Wursts, Schnitzels and Sauerbratens, they were also less expensive and healthier.
I also mentally kicked myself a little for having been so hesitant to try them right off the bat, as they tasted just as appealing as they looked to both of us right from the get go. At some point, it also hit me that twenty years prior to this, while living in Mexico, there was a similar street food I’d hesitated a long time to try – for years, even – only to end up kicking myself really hard once I discovered just how sublime it could be. It was the uber-popular Taco al Pastor that I didn’t quite trust right at first. I’m guessing it was because they weren’t quite as common back in the early 80’s at the indoor, ‘sit-down’ taco restaurants I’d started out frequenting. These establishments tended to specialize in the ‘al Carbon’ style where they grilled tacos over a giant griddle (or sometimes flame grilled) while the more street food-ish ‘al pastor’ style involved tightly stacking thin, marinated slices of pork shoulder on a vertical spit (called a ‘trompo’ in Spanish) and roasted it all by rotating the stack around a heating element.
Fast forward to last December and our most recent travels through Mexico, where we happened upon a regional dish from the city of Puebla called Tacos Arabes that, to our initial surprise, turned out to be the inspiration for Tacos al Pastor.
This slightly older version differs from its ‘offspring’ in several ways. First, the pork meat is absent the red marinade of the al Pastor taco and just as significantly, they’re served in a large, thin white flour wrap instead of a corn tortilla. This gave it more of the look, taste and texture of those Doner Kebabs we enjoyed in Europe.
When I made that connection I also recalled my friend Alex, from Hamburg, telling me how those Doners Shirley and I’d devoured had evolved into a street food in Germany which was different from how the Doner Kebab was originally served. This made me begin to wonder how these foods might be connected with one another, and from where they originated. So after plunging into some rather mouth watering research (which partly inspired our current detour across the Atlantic), here’s what I discovered:
It all starts with the invention of the vertical rotisserie in Ottoman Bursa (today’s Turkey) around 1870. For centuries prior to this, meats were roasted over horizontal spits, including the early Cäg Kebabs in Bursa.
After this, however, it didn’t take long for regional cooks to begin stacking and ‘rotating’ sliced lamb to create the first Doner Kebabs, but these were served initially as simply meat on a plate served with rice and veggies or salad. As they spread throughout the Ottoman Empire the dish evolved: to the Gyro in Greece (which had been a part of that Empire) as well as to Schwarma in Lebanon and Arabia, with each area making its own local tweaks to the seasonings and sides.
The next big event impacting this story was the breakup of the Ottoman Empire (1918-1920). This set off a large migration of Turks and Arabs into Europe, and of Lebanese into Mexico. Of course, they also took their Kebab and Schwarma recipes with them. Different areas also began experimenting with serving them inside various breads and wraps at different times, and as best as I can tell, the Greeks were first by serving their roasted lamb/beef combos inside pita bread. By 1970 the Gyro version we know today had become almost as popular in New York City and Chicago as it was in Athens.
Also around 1970, a Turkish restauranteur in Berlin began wrapping HIS Doner Kebabs in flatbread at his establishment close to a busy, downtown U-Bahn stop, when he realized he could make a KILLING preparing them as street food for workers on the go. These were much the same as the Doners with which we first fell in love thirty-five years later, and today they are, far & away, Germany’s favorite fast food, blowing away all the infamous giant, global burger chains.
A similar version of this – called Donairs, but served with a ‘sweetened’ white sauce (eww!) – even took Halifax, Nova Scotia by storm in the mid ‘70s, and remain hugely popular today.
But wait: I’m getting WAY ahead of myself!
Enter Mexico, and the Lebanese did just that starting in the 1890’s, even migrating in droves after the crumbling of the old Empire. They first settled in the southeastern states of Veracruz, Yucatán and Puebla before spreading out to the north & west, and along the way they inter-married freely with Mexicans, irrespective of the religious differences. Today, they remain the largest middle-eastern community in Mexico, with their descendants numbering nearly half a million, including Carlos Slim, México’s richest person.
It didn’t take long after their arrival, either, for the Lebanese immigrants to begin preparing and selling their beloved Schwarma. However, success in marketing them to the locals took a while, partly because lamb wasn’t so popular a meat in Mexico back then. By the 1930’s however, they hit upon pork as a winning option, though that would’ve been unTHINKable in the old country. They began serving them in the city of Puebla (where they’re still VERY popular) calling them Tacos Arabes. The Poblanos flipped over them and a culinary star was born.
Thirty years later, the further Mexicanized descendants of these Lebanese taqueros had moved to Mexico City where they began experimenting with their own variations of Tacos Arabes. By the mid-sixties they hit upon a successful recipe by doctoring the pork with the now famous red marinade of guajillo chiles, spices and achiote paste, garnishing them with pineapple, onion and cilantro, and switching out the large flour wraps for the smaller corn tortillas. They named them Tacos al Pastor – which basically means cooked “in the shepherd’s style” – and by the response of the local Chilangos, they knew they’d hit a home run. To this day they remain THE most popular taco of Central Mexico, and have progressively been stealing the hearts and taste buds of an increasing number of taco lovers in the USA and Europe.
It’s no surprise that when looking up all the meanings of the culinary keywords used here, they all refer to the same things: Doner means rotary in Turkish just as Schwarma relates to turning in Arabic as does Gyro in Greek. The Mexican trompo (vertical spit), also translates as ‘spinning top’ in Spanish, just like the word rotisserie is derived from ‘rotate.’ But though we all think of Greece when we see a Gyro and think of a Taco al Pastor as an utterly Mexican food, the world ultimately needs to give the people of Turkey a tip o’ the hat, not only for inventing that vertical spit but for the Grandaddy dish that spun off all the rest: the venerable and delicious Doner Kebab.