In bread with my doner

I often have a kebab, though not as often as I might. In my part of the world - and along countless other urban arterial roads the length and breadth of the land - you can proceed from one samey shopping parade to the next, your forward movement registered only by the thinning and thickening of the stylised doner kebabs depicted on the signs vertically mounted above fast-food joints. What is it about the kebab? And more to the point - if you'll forgive the pun - what is it about the Turkish community, which has percolated into this country with scarcely a perturbation of the body politic?

True, from time to time, there is talk of Cyprus, or Armenia, or a multimillion-pound heroin bust - but, on the whole, all we see of the Turks among us are these lumps of compressed, ground meat greasily adhering to shopfronts. Moreover, the subtle occupation of the takeaway niche formerly occupied by fish-and-chip shops is equally unregarded. After all, a Turkish establishment will offer fish, chips, pies and kebabs - so what's not to like?

As I say, I often have a kebab; I had one in Bexhill-on-Sea the other evening, on spying a likely establishment en route to the station. My train was due in about 15 minutes, so I had to make a decision: should I have the doner kebab (a nasty gustatory experience, its pinky-grey strips of meat visibly fizzing with bacteria) or the shish (often surprisingly good, the meat charcoal-grilled and succulent). I stress: the kebab choice is never to do with a marginal unit of cost - at most there's a quid's difference between the two - but a marginal unit of time.


There's something about choosing the shish that brings out the artiste in the average kebab-joint operative. Yes, he will assure you that it will only take a few minutes but, once he's begun barbecuing, he becomes subject to some strange atavism. Once more, he is a sheep herder, high on the Anatolian plateau. In his mind's eye, he crouches, eyes narrowed, to spear the precious lamb chunks on his wickedly sharpened dagger. The winds howl all around, the wolves join in, the dogs yowl, the sheep "mmmaa-aaa-aaa" in dread anticipation. Outside, the yoof of Bexhill-on-Sea may be swigging Bacardi Breezers and talking arse, but inside the kebab shop it's a mystic communion between man and fire of Zoroastrian significance. Or so I thought, as the minutes ticked away and I cursed myself for not having risked the doner: "Um, I really do have a train to catch," I remonstrated with the Turk as he fiddled with his meaty spillikins. "I know, I know," he shot back, "but you can't have these underdone." No, indeed - an underdone shish kebab would be as bad as . . . well, as bad as a doner kebab.

Needless to say, I made the train and sat in the plastic, aseptic interior as it toggled its way through Collington, Cooden Beach and Pevensey and Westham. I unwrapped the hot buttock of the kebab from its outerwear of off-white paper, and then its underwear of grey-greasy paper. Naturally, the kebab man had asked if I wanted salad - and I had consented to this. Of course, he had offered sauce - and to this, I had also agreed.

A kebab stuffed to the seams should only be attempted with an armoury of cutlery and a full roll of quilted kitchen roll to hand - but I had neither. Within seconds, the tabletop was bedizened with chunks of tomato, onion and meat, with dollops of sauce and juice.

Plenty more shish in the sea

It was a very good kebab - and I was in hog-eat-sheep heaven. Chomping on, I meditated on the bizarre fact that oblong countries invariably have bad human rights records - Turkey, of course, but also Israel/Palestine (with the nasty sub-oblongs of Gaza and the West Bank), to say nothing of Egypt, Nepal and Saudi Arabia. There must be something about the rectilinear that does it to the collective unconscious of a nation, making its inhabitants feel as if they're all in jail together, and so they divide up into sadistic guards and cowering inmates . . .

The kebab was finished. It had taken me so long to get through £3.95 of food that the train was trundling through the outer suburbs of London. I looked down from the embanked line on the rivers of halogen light and the knots of the inebriated gathered outside late-night takeaways. It was with something like a thrill that I picked out the first, tapering oblong of a stylised doner kebab on a lit-up sign. Ah! It would be good to smell the greasy kebabs of home.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask