A gimlet eye recently spotted that a little Turkish restaurant is currently the seventh-best rated in London on the website TripAdvisor, beating more than 10,000 others. It’s not, as some have giddily said, strictly a kebab shop, and it’s worth noting straight away that TripAdvisor is an imperfect source of information on restaurants. Most of its contributors seem to be tourists, and visitors in a new city are by definition inexpert local restaurant critics.
Nonetheless, Meze Mangal in the south-eastern borough of Lewisham is a loveably dowdy restaurant which has been knocking out superb grilled meats and pide (a Turkish pizza variant) for more than 12 years. And it’s great to see kebabs featuring so highly on such a list. Turkish food has long been the most underrated in the UK, and its greatest offering perhaps the most bastardised and maligned of all our imported foods.
A good kebab marries the comforting solidity of its bread and the crunch of its salad to the nourishing, tender spice of its meat. It resembles in no way the standard dismal offering of the British high street: a cardboard pocket of dough, brown and wizened lettuce, a greasy spurt of sauce, the textureless brown of processed flesh.
I have a small mobile kebab venture of my own – currently on hiatus – and I’ve studied the history and manifestations of the food in some detail, both here and in Turkey. The ugly city of Gaziantep by the Syrian border produces the most ravishing ones: the lamb there – lamb, mutton and goat are the best meats – is marinated for several days in a fierce and pungent mix of spices, the floppy breads are warm and chewy, the saucing is judicious and rich. People take them seriously well beyond the Caucasus and south into Persia and the Middle East, but Turkey is the true home of the kebab. “Doner” means “to turn” in Turkish: a gently revolving, well-assembled spit of unminced meat is one of the most beautiful shop windows I can think of.