Crazy for Kebab

Crazy for Kebab

So you call yourself a kebab aficionado? Not if you haven’t eaten at Kazancilar Kebab, Adana’s famed progenitor of grilled lamb.

Adana is the Philadelphia of Turkey, a city synonymous with a single entrée, and a hulking one at that, serving-wise. Just as cheese steak is standard fare in the US’s City of Brotherly Love, kebab is inextricably linked to the southern Turkish city of Adana, bullying other dishes off of menus, leaving passersby with greasy fingers, tenting the city in a mesquite cloud that wafts, ever so faintly, of grilled lamb. Adana natives, in my experience, are born initiated into the art of kebab, as if a taste for kebab were part of the population’s gene pool, and although restaurants in Greece and even London have boasted the world’s best kebab in recent years, the fact remains that the worst kebab in Adana is better than the best kebab anywhere else, with the exception, perhaps, of nearby Tarsus or Mersin, but only because Adana natives have taken kebab there.

What makes Adana kebabs singular and essential is, in fact, simplicity. In a world where fusion and tinkering is increasingly du jour, the ingredients in Adana kebabs are refreshingly fixed: ground meat from a male lamb, fat from the lamb tail, salt, and red pepper. Once sculpted and skewered, the mixture is grilled over white-hot charcoals. The modus operandi for eating kebab, as anyone in Adana will tell you, is to scarf it. In my years living in Adana, I have scarfed kebab straight from backyard grills. I have scarfed kebabs off of tables with white linen tablecloths. I have left few crumbs and gained many pounds.

Until recently, my experience with the local hallmark, though deep and substantial and rarely less than sublime, was, alas, incomplete because I had never, in all my time here, ventured to Kazancilar Kebab, the oldest kebab restaurant in the city, the place where the first Adana kebab was sold back in 1908.

How had this happened? Perhaps it was testament to Kazancilar’s influence on kebab-culture writ large, but I felt quite content frequenting the kebab joints in my own neighborhood. Still, the longer I waited the more intensely Kazancilar Kebab leered. “How can you call yourself a kebab aficionado?” it taunted. “You’re like an architecture nut from Istanbul who never casts a glance towards the Blue Mosque, a Yankees fan who has never once been to Yankee Stadium.”

So on a recent afternoon I relented and traveled with my wife to Kazancilar for lunch. Located in the heart of old Adana, Kazancilar (literally “Kettle makers”) takes its name from the metal shops that once dominated the city. Although the metal workers are now an endangered species, the area is still a hub for craftsmen of various stripes. The restaurant was three-stories with additional seating on the sidewalk and street with an awning of corrugated sheet metal to fend off sun and rain. We opted to sit outside. The sky was overcast but brimming with spring. The ravenous lunch crowds had not yet arrived.

We hastily ordered two kebabs. The sides arrived at once. Like the complimentary basket of chips and bowl of salsa at a Mexican restaurant, sides come without provocation in Adana. In fact, a restaurant is often chosen as much for the amount and quality of the sides as for its kebab. There was a plate of cool yogurt, a plate of pickled cucumbers, olives, peppers, and cabbage, a plate of parsley surrounded by slices of radish and lemon wedges, and a plate of chopped onions and parsley sprinkled with purple sumac. To top it off there was a salad with a pomegranate-juice dressing and a basket of hot flat bread.

We might have filled up on sides had our waiter, Sedat, not served the kebabs pronto. I was tempted to dive in but restlessly waited until our drinks were served. My wife opted for ayran, a yogurt-based beverage that is the perfect balm for the spiciness of kebab. I, on the other hand, decided on shalgam, extra-spicy. This dark red, slightly fermented yet non-alcoholic specialty is made of black carrots, radishes, water, and bulgur. With a broad smile and an afiyet olsun! (bon appetit) Sedat departed and we dug in.

Using our fingers, we folded strips of flat bread around chunks of kebab along with forkfuls of onion, parsley, and sumac. And what can I say? The food was rich, spicy, filling, wonderful. In other words, it was an Adana kebab, only more so, considering we were on pilgrimage to the place where it all started. Finally, we took our last bites and washed them down with final drops of ayran and shalgam. Afterwards, while we relaxed by sipping small, tulip-shaped glasses of tea, we noticed the chef taking his lunch break. Would he mind answering a few questions, we wondered? No problem, Sedat said and called over to Mahmut, the usta of Kazancilar.

Mahmut said he has been grilling kebabs for more than 30 years. He told us about the painful process of learning the tricks of the trade under old masters, how they smacked him with the flat side of a metal skewer when he made mistakes like letting the meat fall onto the hot coals.

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