With the rush of the holidays and looming cold weather, few foods can be as quickly made, portable, and hearty as a kebab. Regardless of what meat you prefer, what spice palate, or even what style (doner or shish, for example), there’s a different kind of kebab for everyone. Though it may seem a simple street food, kebabs are a big business, contributing over £2.2 billion to Britain’s economy per year; and they have now become the star in their own right, thanks to the British Kebab Awards.
Far removed from its new-found fame are its origins. Truth be told, nobody really knows how far back kebabs go. While we do know that they are Middle Eastern in origin, there is evidence from excavations in Greece that a form of kebab was already being made by the 17th century B.C. While differing types of kebabs, such as souvlaki, are mentioned by the likes of Homer, Aristotle, and Xenophon, the first known usage of the actual word “kebab” comes from a script written by Kyssa-i Yusuf in 1377, which equates the word with words from the Akkadian and Syriac languages which mean “to fry/burn,” or liberally translated, to roast.
In English, a form of the word kebab first appears in 1813, in Volume 2 of James Forbes’ – a writer for the British East India Company who spent 17 years of his life in India – Oriental Memoirs, where he describes a Mogul dinner of “pilaurs, kebabs, curries, and other savoury dishes.” As the British Empire began importing the exotic tastes of India and the Middle East during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, we can see the familiarity of the kebab a mere 90 years later: a 1902 Daily Chronicle article talks about “pressing on past….dealers, kebab sellers and market women.”
The first kebab shop in the UK is thought to have opened in Stoke Newington in 1966, but the kebab made its real entrance in the mid-1970s when it started being offered in bread as a post pub-drinking snack to nowadays when next month, a panel of 15 judges – from Members of Parliament, bankers and lawyers to doner industry experts – will select for a third time the best British Kebab.