Bursa: a Kebab Quest
It can be said that I owe my career as a food writer to an Iskender kebab, one I devoured in Istanbul nearly two decades ago. The restaurant was Liman, an old place overlooking the port, where the waiters creaked with the floors and a matron sprayed your hands with rosewater as you emerged from the bathroom. My main course arrived—a steel plate holding squares of toasted pide flatbread nestled under thin shingles of meat. Crusty around the edges and subtly infused with a-thousand-and-one unknown seasonings, the meat came smothered in a blanket of lightly warmed yogurt topped with tomato sauce. The waiter anointed it all with melted butter. Gazing out at the Bosporus, I suddenly felt intoxicated with pleasure, besotted with Istanbul, and hopelessly in love with Iskender. Over the last square of yogurt-drenched bread, I contrived to spend the rest of my days eating and wandering.
What exactly is this Iskender kebab, you might be wondering?Well, you’ve probably had doner or gyro or shwarma—meaning slices of compressed meat shaved from a cylinder cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Authentic Iskender kebab is doner with a difference. Instead of industrial-grade meat, you get slivers of quality lamb and beef pressed into a cone and spit-roasted over live coals. Both the vertical grilling method and the ingenious serving style—with those crucial flatbread croutons, tomato, yogurt, and butter—were invented by a man called Iskender (Alexander) Usta in 1867 in Bursa, a city 155 miles southeast of Istanbul. That Bursa has always ranked at the top of my food pilgrimage sites goes without saying.
When I finally made it to Bursa last fall, I discovered an early Ottoman capital chockablock with enticements, among them historic mausoleums and mosques, thermal baths, plus a silk bazaar stocked with colorful bolts of ethereal fabric. Still, the only thing on my mind was my midday rendezvous with the kebab. I met the dish of my dreams at Uludag Kebapçisi, a ramshackle storefront with three rickety tables outside on a traffic-choked sidewalk. Prepared by a septuagenarian chef, the kebab was daunting in its deliciousness. The yogurt tasted like it was made by an Anatolian shepherd from an ancient starter. A smoke-tinged sauce of grilled chopped tomatoes and eggplants accentuated the meat’s deep, lasting savor. The grilled pide squares underneath seemed especially engineered to soak up just the right amounts of sauces and juices. Alternating bites of my deconstructed sandwich with sips of Sira—the slightly fermented raisin drink traditionally served with the meal—I felt the same giddy pleasure that had gripped me in Istanbul 20 years ago. Iskender kebab had become my private madeleine, except Proust’s paltry cake never tasted that thrilling.
The next day I repeated the experience at Iskender Efendi Konagi. Less a restaurant than a kebab theme park, this $4 million extravaganza was conjured up in Bursa’s botanical gardens by Yavuz Iskenderoglu, the great-grandson of the Iskender Usta who invented the dish. Iskenderoglu greeted me, larger than life and bursting with pride. Immediately, he gave me a tour of the 19th-century kebab paraphernalia and the sepia-toned ancestral photos arranged icon-like on the turquoise-blue walls of the front dining room, a replica of the family’s original kebab joint. Lunch awaited in an upstairs chamber that could be mistaken for a grand vizier’s reception hall. There, I was once again struck by the perfection of each element: the house-made butter and pide; the grass-fed meat reared on a hilltop farm. As I ate, Yavuz-bey talked at a rapid-fire pace. Onion juice is the only permissible seasoning—spices only serve to cover up inferior meat. The mese (oak) wood that fuels the grill should be left to dry in the afternoon sun. The family did manage to trademark the term "Iskender doner kebab," but every restaurant in the country is shamelessly knocking off the dish anyway. Yavuz-bey, who already owns six other Iskender restaurants, concluded by confiding his grand ambition: to open a branch at Harrods. What was that we were saying about globalization?At least London’s an awful lot closer to my home in New York than Bursa.
Anya von Bremzen is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor. Her latest cookbook is The New Spanish Table.