Know Your Döner Kebap — History Overview and Selected Dishes

A typical döner kebap stand in Istanbul, Turkey.

by Erlend Geerts

in Practical Information, Restaurants

Döner kebap, or in short döner, is known almost all around the world. Sure, ingredients and sauces vary, and often it even comes under a different name. Shawarma, gyros, tacos al pastor, sufllaqe or kabab Torki are some of the derivations of it.

But the döner basics remain the same: beaten pieces of meat are seasoned with suet, local herbs and spices, skewered on a spit and grilled vertically. Originally the meat used for döner kebap was lamb. Today, in Istanbul, it is made of a lamb and beef mixture, or even only beef.

The Origin of Döner Kebap

Most anthropologists claim that cooking fires started about 250.000 years ago, yet there isn’t any clear proof about the beginning of cooking in the history of mankind. Probably some kind of kebab has been consumed since the day men started using fire for cooking. In Sumerian, kabuba means to cook on ember and in Arabic it means to fry meat. In the Turkish period it gained today’s meaning: grilled or broiled meat on a (vertical) skewer or stick.

It is considered that kebabs come from an earlier time when Nomadic tribesmen grilled meat on their swords. In his 18th century travel books, Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi mentions kebab as a horizontal stack of meat. In the 1860s Iskender Efendi from Bursa contributes to the kebab with a new angle – vertical grilling and serving it in thin slices. The döner kebap, which simply means rotating kebab, stands out as an innovation in the history of Turkish cuisine.

A plate of Bursa İskender Kebap in Istanbul, Turkey.

A plate of Bursa İskender Kebap.

Famous Döner Kebap Dishes

The overview below is by no means a complete list of all döner dishes available. It’s just a sample of some you may want to try out during your stay. You can find these dishes all around the city, whether in a chic or a modest small restaurant.

  • Döner Kebap is served in various ways. The meat used can be lamb, lamb and beef or chicken. Mostly in the restaurants it comes on a plate with rice or fried potatoes, and salad on the side. Since it has recently become a fast-food dish too, you can also get it as a sandwich in between pide – pita like traditional thick bread.
  • Döner Dürüm is another very delicious serving style of döner meat which is wrapped in lavaş – tortilla like thin leaves of bread. The companying ingredients like green salad, fried potatoes, pickles or hot tomato sauce are optional. So ask what you can have in the wrap and add or omit according to your taste. Sometimes dürüm is made by using grilled minced meat brochettes mounted on a wide skewer, again wrapped in lavaş. There is no better or worse, it is all about preference.
  • İskender Kebap is the döner meat served on pieces of pide dressed with butter and yogurt on a side of the plate. If preferred, tomato sauce and extra butter can be used for dressing. It is also known as Bursa Kebabı. It’s one of my personal favorites.

(Photo Source)

What's Next

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Olga Wilkerson April 26, 2011 at 4:06 pm

I am sorry to say, this is wrong information. Iskender Kebap created by man named Iskender from Bursa and sons have the patent of the name and continuos the legacy, all the others are alike dishes but they can’t get the taste right.


Erlend Geerts May 1, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Dear Olga,

Thank you for your comment. However, I can not see where the “wrong” information is. In the article I mentioned the contribution of Iskender Efendi in döner, yet he did not invent kebab. It is indeed correct that Iskender Kebap is a EU Community Trademark (CTM) patented dish and the descendant(s) of the family Yavuz İskenderoğlu continue to run the family business and defend their rights.

I am sure you will understand that I did not go into too much details. Anyone can serve döner kebap, but if they want to serve Iskender Kebap then they are supposed to get permission and follow the legal procedures.


Lonnie Wilcox January 17, 2013 at 5:05 am

I Have eaten Iskender kabap in Boston, Virginia, Maryland, San Francisco, Tennessee and my favorite Izmir Turkey. All have been pretty good with the one in Izmir being the most memorable. The ones here in the states Im sure don’t have permission. I tip my hat to MR Iskender, but I am just glad I can get it here in the states. To bad none here in Maine where I now live. Maybe I ll become a donner master and do it myself, I might even get permission, lol.


mk4524 May 29, 2013 at 10:48 pm

I was in Bursa many years ago and remember ordering Doner Kebap. It was served with yogurt and I remembered as it was served, someone came and poured a hot tomatoe sauce on it. I can’t recall any Doner Kebab I’ve tried over the years as tasting so good. I think it was the hot sauce poured straight out of the pot that really topped it out.

Was that Iskendar Kebab?


Erlend Geerts May 30, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Yes, that’s the one!


Amanda June 29, 2014 at 7:36 pm

My favorite Turkish dishes are iskender and meat balls. The most delicious can be found at Istanbulls Döner which is located in Karaköy. I still miss that tender juicy meat…


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