Heated debate is likely to follow, but we're being brave. Fortified by some excellent bread-and-meat combos, we're tackling the tricky question of the difference between a doner kebab, a gyros and a shawarma. And why none of them should have cheese.
By
Andrew Levins

30 Oct 2015 - 2:27 PM  UPDATED 5 Dec 2017 - 1:26 PM

I don’t really remember my first kebab. Please don’t think any less of me.

I was young at the time, probably at a Westfield shopping centre in the suburbs. I was likely enticed by a one of the still-image commercials that screened before I saw a movie that was almost certainly starring Mike Myers. A pre-teen, parentless for the three-hour duration of a lackluster comedy sequel and a meal afterwards, with ten dollars in his pocket to put towards said meal, enticed by that commercial, a flurry of bright colours, low-resolution tabouli photos and a short but unforgettable jingle, the loudly chanted “Ali Baba!”. No amount of Mike Myers proclaiming ‘yeah baby!’ would take my mind off the lunch that I needed to devour: my first kebab.

Those first years of kebab eating were extremely enjoyable, but not ones I would happily return to today. Where years of burger eating still allow me to enjoy a Quarter Pounder as much as a more top of the line burger, the thought of going back to that sweaty, slowly rotating cylinder of brown meat found in every suburban food court today sends a shiver down my spine. Maybe if I was drunk – which I was when I ate a kebab every weekend for a while after I turned 18. But these were the formative years, when I realised that some kebabs were better than hours. Where I would be disgusted at a mate for ordering a kebab with double meat, cheese, ketchup and no vegetables of any kind. I didn’t care how many Malibu and Cokes he’d drunk beforehand, he’d committed something I had only just realised existed: a kebab crime.

Kebab crimes aren’t solely committed by drunk mates who hate salad; the most common kebab crime is committed by the store owner who subscribes to the notion that kebabs are a drunk people food, and is therefore happy to serve you a stale bread-wrapped sweaty meat tube at any time of day. However, a good kebab is an artform, and one that’s relatively easy to find if you know what to look for.

Chef Somer Sivrioglu talks Turkish kebabs
Ali Nazik kebab

When you say kebab, most Australians think of a doner kebab – shaved meat wrapped in flatbread with additions of salad and sauce. Here, we discover what a traditional Turkish kebab is, originating from the Gaziantep region: chunks of meltingly sweet lamb mixed with pistachio nuts, cooked on a charcoal barbecue and served with a smoked eggplant and garlic yoghurt sauce, in a chat with and recipe by Efendy Restaurant chef Somer Sivrioglu.

A kebab is a celebration of meat, bread and spilling sauce all over your shirt. There are endless variations on the kebab all over the world, and the good ones are worth definitely ruining a shirt for. Although kebabs – grilled meat on sticks – originated in the Middle East at some point in the 14th century, the most common iteration of the kebab you’ll find in Australia is the beef doner kebab – where meat is sliced from a rotisserie and served in bread – and some say we have Germany to thank for that. Germany? Ah yes.

After a wave of Turkish immigrants took up residency in Berlin in the 1970s, the kebab became almost as popular as the sausage there. Today, more than 700 million servings are sold in Germany every year. Istanbul-born immigrant Kadir Nurman was widely lauded as the “father” of the doner kebab, although not surprisingly, there’s some debate about whether he invented the idea of slicing meat from a grill and wrapping it in bread with various toppings to create an easily portable feed.

Whatever the true origins, the kebab continues to evolve: I’ve found a weird hybrid of kebabs and banh mi on the streets of Hanoi, and shaken my head as a drunk mate asked for an ‘Indian kebab’ at a Pakistani takeaway joint. In Canada, the “donair” may come with a sweet-savoury sauce made with evaporated or condensed milk, vinegar and garlic.

But even the basic doner kebab isn’t as simple as it might seem. Because there’s gyros. And shawarma. And yeeros… Yep, the deliciousness that results from whacking sliced grilled meat in bread has a pile of names. But we’re here to clear the confusion.

Four main kinds of kebabs can be found pretty easily in Australia – although some of the dodgier joints have amalgamated a few aspects from all of them.

The rotation of the doner spits in front of electric grills means gentle slow cooking, resulting in juicy meat, and as meat is shaved off, constantly creating those nicely sort-of crispy edges we all like so much.

Doner kebab

While the word kebab generally refers to a grilled skewer of meat (perhaps pioneered long ago by Persian soldiers making the best use of their swords, a dead animal and some fire?), when most Australians think kebab, they think thin slices shaved from an impossibly shiny slab of meat, most commonly beef or lamb, cooked on a huge upright rotating spit.

Those hefty rounded cones of meat you’ll see slowly spinning in your local kebab shop may be formed of spiced minced and compressed meat or sliced meat, and while lamb and beef are the traditional choices, chicken is also offered in many kebaberies. The rotation of the doner spits in front of electric grills means gentle slow cooking, resulting in juicy meat, and as meat is shaved off, constantly creating those nicely sort-of crispy edges we all like so much. Sometimes you’ll see shaved meat tossed onto a hotplate for a second cooking – that’s a good thing, not only for added crispiness, but because in kebab rush hour, when the slow grilling may struggle to keep up with demand, that quick shuffle around on the griddle makes sure the meat is thoroughly cooked. Goodbye spectre of dodgy kekab tummy, hello hot meaty goodness with extra crispy edges.

And while most of that meat carved off with those long sharp knives goes into the familiar bready wrap – either a fluffy Turkish bread or a thinner flatbread version –  in Australia you can also find thin slices of doner kebab served over rice or over yoghurt. Some of the better late-night Turkish takeaways even sell pizza topped with kebab meat.

The traditional Turkish toppings for a doner kebab wrap are tomatoes, onions, either pickled cabbage or cucumbers, and chilli, served on fresh Turkish bread. It’s simple, but hugely popular: At New Star Kebab in Auburn, NSW, on a street they share with three other kebab joints, they’ll often sell more than 1000 kebabs a day.

Shawarma

Both doner kebabs and shawarma are usually cooking on a vertical spit using an electric grill. The differences lie a little in the meat, and definitely in the toppings. Where doner kebab meat, especially the beef, is often highly seasoned and sometimes minced, the spits used for shawarma are put together using strips of meat and fat. Shawarma comes to us from Lebanon and other Levant countries pretty quickly, where the local touch is the addition of tabouli, tahini and pickles.

Those kebabs I ate during my first year as a kebab enthusiast were an amalgamation of shawarma and doner, still an easy to find combination in Australia and relatively cheap to put together. Some Lebanese bread, thin slices from the rotating cylinder of beef, lamb or chicken, plus hummus, tabouli and the blasphemous addition of grated tasty cheese and BBQ sauce. Just say no. We can do better.

The best shawarma isn’t necessarily wrapped in bread, but rather is often to be found served next to pile of fresh Lebanese bread, a bevy of different grilled meats with bright pink pickled turnips, crisp green tabouli and a selection of hummus, baba ganoush and tahini to smear onto your creation. Eating a kebab this way is the opposite of the late-night, forever-alone kebab eating stereotype. It’s a communal affair, a celebration of sharing and getting your hands dirty.

Gyros

Greece is responsible for gifting the gyros to the world, although some Greek store owners decided to rename it ‘yeeros’ (or yiros) because people love mispronouncing things almost as much as they like to ask for extra cheese and ketchup. Gyros means ‘turn’ in Greek, and depending on where you go to get it, your gyros may be turning vertically or horizontally. Most common is the vertical rotisserie, where a layer of fat sits on top of the skewer of meat and slowly bastes the meat below it as it cooks. These will typically be cooked in a tall electric grill. The horizontal method involves cooked over coals and calls for a mix of fatty cuts. The meat is coarser, juicier and blessed by the taste of hot coals.

The biggest difference gyros has when compared with its Middle Eastern mates is that the main meat cooked is pork, although beef, lamb and chicken are used regularly too.

These gyros spits can be big. Really big. Kefi Street Café, one of Sydney’s newer kebab destinations but with a deserved following for its gyros, cooked horizontally over coals, makes spits of lamb that weigh more than 50 kilograms, as well as chicken and pork spits of 25-30 kilograms. It’s an impressive pile of meat, and they’ll go through more than 200 kilograms of lamb alone each week.

For a gyros, the cooked and sliced meat is served on either a fresh pita bread (some of the best spots cook the bread themselves), or an older piece of bread which is lightly grilled in the oil of the meat. Alongside the meat you’ll find the usual kebab vege trio of sliced onions, tomato and lettuce, plus some garlicky tzatziki sauce and, possibly, a handful of chips or French fries. For some, this addition of fries immediately elevates gyros to the top of the kebab chain, but wiser folk know that all kebabs are equal when prepared with love and care.

Just as doner kebabs took off in Berlin, gyros have been embraced by New York, where you’re able to buy one on every block, although very rarely with the addition of French fries.  Older gyros joints in Sydney (the ones that use the ‘yeeros’ spelling) don’t shove fries into their wraps either, but newer restaurants have embraced the extra carbs.

And while we’re talking Greek food, let’s give an honourable mention to the souvlaki (the one pictured above is from Melbourne's Kalimera Souvlakis, featured on Food Safari Fire, coming soon to SBS ONE). While a gyros, like a doner kebab, is make with meat from a large rotating spit, souvlaki are individual skewers threaded with small chunks of meat. Said pieces are sometimes taken off the skewer and served wrapped in bread, creating a pretty close cousin to the gyro.

All new Food Safari Fire coming soon
Food Safari Fire
Food Safari returns in a blaze of glory to explore how cultures across the world cook with fire, including kebabs - the ultimate street food from around the world.

Adana kebab

The warning signs of a bad kebab are pretty easy to spot – the grated tasty cheese, the giant Masterfoods sauce bottles, the inability to work out whether the large spinning brown thing is meat or boiled footballs – but one way to make sure you’re going to get an amazing kebab is to head to any store that cooks with coals. All the best Turkish doner kebabs can be seen and smelt long before they’re in your hands.

Yes, shops that cook with coals will sell meat cylinders, but for me the best things on the menu are the individual skewers of lamb, chicken and best of all, the Adana kebab, a skewer of minced lamb and spices cooked over charcoal, bellowing its deliciousness into the street. Best enjoyed with onions, tomato slices, a little sumac and some pickled cabbage, wrapped in an enormous piece of fluffy Turkish bread – often you’ll see the man at the grill using the pieces of bread to turn the meat over the coals, which soaks up the smoke and juices.

Wherever you go, the kebabs will be a little different, but none of the different styles of kebab are completely superior to the other (except for the ones packed with grated tasty cheese, which are way down at the bottom of the ladder). When done well, all kebabs are equal victors of supreme taste. They are also equal in being near impossible to eat without spilling some down your shirt, but when the kebabs smell as good as these ones do, you might not really mind having a reminder for the rest of your day.

For more kebab recipes, check out our collection page here. 

Tune into Kebab Kings 8.30pm Tuesdays on SBS VICELAND and catch-up on SBS On Demand here.

More meat, more bread
Persian ‘sour’ goat kebabs (kebab torsh)

Pomegranate molasses is the sour element here, lending a depth and richness that you’ll not get from anything else it’s easily sourced from Middle Eastern, and some general, supermarkets. A specialty from two regions along the Caspian Sea, Gilan and Mazandaran, this Irani dish is traditionally made from beef and served with rice. We've gone for a fresh feel by pairing goat skewers with grilled vegetables and bread. 

Slow-roasted lamb shoulder with flavours of shawarma

There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the kitchen on Christmas day while all your guests are enjoying themselves outside, so this DIY lamb shawarma recipe is the perfect solution. It’s the easiest roast lamb you’ll ever make and it pairs beautifully with the carrot and yoghurt dip and the pickled onion salad. All wrapped up in a warm flat-bread – it’s the best Christmas present ever!

Syrian-style hummus, lamb kebab

The secret to Syrian-style hummus is that it’s made with roasted chickpeas and that’s what gives it such a unique flavour. The kebabs are just as simple – no marinating or heavy seasoning. It’s all about the quality of the lamb and the fat you buy.