In Denizli, A Dish Worth Fighting Over

On the origins and staying power of a Turkish staple

By / October 2013

You won’t find a pulled pork barbecue sandwich in Turkey. But you won’t have to look far before you find its cultural counterpart, kokoreç (pronounced “co-co-wretch”). This Turkish staple, often served on a half-loaf of fresh bread, consists of grilled sheep intestines. Although kokoreç is by no means universally adored in Turkey, its devotees come from all walks of life. Men and women, young and old, bankers, taxi-drivers, government officials, mechanics, students, and lawyers scarf this offal dish for lunch and dinner. Kokoreç is served at countless hole-in-the-wall fast-food restaurants, as well as at upscale, eye-catching eateries. And at most of these restaurants kokoreç is the only item on the menu.

Though its origins are not entirely clear, kokoreç seems to be an inheritance from the Balkan region of Southern Europe. Neighboring Greeks traditionally ate the dish, called kokoretsi in their tongue, during Lent. While the family was waiting for the traditional Lenten lamb to roast, the grilled intestines made a convenient appetizer. Though the dish has likely been consumed in Turkish homes for a lot longer, Istanbullite Vahap Usta, known as the king of kokoreç, with his signature bowtie, helped propel it onto the fast food scene in the 1980’s by dishing sandwiches out to the lunch crowds that pressed in around his movable cart in the city’s Sirkeci district.

Though kokoreç can be made from bovine intestines at approximately half the cost, most people insist that the only kokereç worth eating is made from lamb intestines. They’re tender and they’re clean (as far as intestines go). After the animal is slaughtered the large and small intestines — as well as the fatty tissue surrounding them — are cleansed with with lots of water then hung up to dry. First the fat is pierced onto a metal skewer about two feet long. Then the shorter and thicker large intestine is wrapped around it. Then comes another layer of the fat. Finally (and visually most disturbing for those with a queasy stomach) two small intestines are wound tightly around the skewer, back and forth, until the ten-pound coil of innards looks like a slender spool of wet grayish garden hose pressed flat. At this point roughly half of the skewers are put into an industrial gas-powered oven where they’re partially cooked and then flash-frozen for distribution. But some kokoreç chefs want theirs raw.

In Denizli, deliverymen from Aegean Intestine and Kokoreç, one of two licensed distributors, drive around the city in shifts filling orders placed the previous afternoon or even on the same day. Chefs who cook their kokoreç on a hot griddle typically buy it partially cooked. But aficionados insist that the best kokoreç is roasted over open coals, which is costlier and more labor intensive. The skewer spins close to the fire for an hour and a half, and then gets moved to the top of the cooking rack for another hour or so. If you slice it when its too hot, you’ll lose too much of the fat and grease. After being finely chopped, sprinkled with salt, cumin, oregano and red pepper (for those who want it spicy), and folded between a half loaf of fresh bread, it’s time to eat. A kokoreç sandwich is usually ready within five minutes of walking through the door. And the hard-core consumers insist on chasing it down with a spicy pickle or turnip juice.

Photograph by Josh Hinton

But kokoreç is more than just fast food. In recent years it has become a symbol of Turkish cultural heritage and identity. In his 2001 album, “Unforgettable,” Turkish pop singer Fergan Mirkelam has a song titled “Kokoreç” in which he serenades the personified grilled intestine sandwich like a lover, and bemoans others meddling in their romance. The song has teeth. In the early 1990’s, because of an outbreak of mad cow disease, the European Union banned the sale of internal organs of certain livestock in member countries. When the Turkish government began negotiating in earnest for EU membership in the early aughts, many Turks feared it might mean the prohibition of kokoreç. Producers and restaurant owners initiated public awareness campaigns to protect their favorite dish.

For over ten years kokoreç production in Turkey has been regulated by the ministry of food, agriculture and livestock. Orhan Mete, an internal quality control inspector for Akseker Group, one of Turkey’s largest producers of kokoreç and other animal products, sums up the general mindset regarding kokereç. “What’s in the hamburgers you eat at fast food restaurants? Do you know?” he asks. “At least we know what we’re eating. Europe should come and see.”

Husrev, an employee at Vitamin Kokoreç, just off the main highway that slices through Denizli, remembers a busload of tourists on their way to the Mediterranean who stopped in for authentic Turkish cuisine. Upon learning what kokoreç was made from, one female European tourist refused to eat it. Her husband, seizing the opportunity, conspired with their translator to convince her she was ordering a kebab sandwich instead. She ate two of them before they told her the truth. The moral of the story is obvious. You won’t know how good it is until you try it.

 

Andy Owens is an EthnoTraveler contributor.

 

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