Inspired by the recent British Kebab awards Zeren Wilson wonders what the perfect wine pairing is for a kebab and comes up with some surprising conclusions.
Zeren writes: "Something is stirring in the world of Turkish dining in London, a subtle shifting of the landscape. This week the 2014 British Kebab Awards were held in the Park Lane Sheraton, a celebration of the finest purveyors of this most primal and visceral form of eating, that of slamming bits of animal over white hot coals (sometimes the skewer is flourished), turning them every now and again, and waiting until they are done.
The roots of the Turkish word kebap can be traced back to Mesopotamia, it's origins arriving through the Persian and Urdu languages, with its original meaning summing things up cutely: meat cooked with flames.
As the son of a Turkish Cypriot mother, the kebab has played a role in my upbringing from a disconcertingly early age. At six months old my parents took me along to their favourite Kebab restaurant and Britain's first, Nasreddin Hoca (named after a historical Ottoman figure), and slung me under the table while they chowed on meat, hummus and garlicky yoghurt dip, cacik. If Twitter had existed back then, I would probably have sent my first tweet from under the table.
We Brits have evolved a great tradition of getting plastered on a Saturday night (as one should sometimes) and soaking up all that booze with a late night kebab, which may be a gourmet delight, but so often can be something....less appealing.
The British Kebab Awards were not bigging up the potentially shocking Elephant Leg here (which with good meat, can also be great), but rather theTurkish restaurants that have been serving up thoroughly decent meat, chargrilled with a bit of love.
Apart from hoovering up a few bottles of the Turkish lager Efes (it does a job, but won't shake your shish in an earth-changing way), there are a few styles of wine that have the weapons in their armoury to cope with the bold flavours involved and the smoke of the grill.
Turkish wines have improved considerably over recent years, but on a recent visit to Istanbul I found prohibitive taxes applied to wine, making drinking anything decent an almost impossible task without being shafted on price.
Importers in the UK have started to notice the improvements*, and one of the first to take the leap has been Armit, who bring in wines from the very decent Urla winery, which Jancis Robinson featured on her site a couple of years ago.
Turkish varietals have some wonderful names, chief among them being the burly, tannic grape Bogazkere (poetically translated as 'throat scraper'), and the somewhat fluffier, friendlier Oküzgözü* (meaning 'bull's eye', which is often blended with its more abrasive, tannic cousin to achieve balance and roundness.
A Turkish white varietal which perked up my palate was the versatile Narince, a Riesling-esque wannabe, with great acidity and a broad spectrum of fruit flavours ranging from lime and grapefruit, through to lusher tropical notes. It can also cope with a touch of oak in the right winemaker's hands.
Doluca is another example of a Turkish winery making clean, accessible wines which have the potential to enter International markets and compete on the quality front.
Let's see what else we can pour successfully when perched up against the heat of the mangal . . .
ADANA KEBAB - For me this is the 'daddy' of the kebab restaurant experience, and I never feel satisfied unless I have at least a bite of this glorious 'köfte on a stick'. Named after the fifth largest city in Turkey, this is a boldly flavoured assemblage of minced lamb meat (often with tail fat), sweet red peppers, garlic, onion, parsley, red pepper flakes, with some variations depending on the venue.
Wrapping this in a Turkish flatbread (dürüm) which has been moistened with the fat from the cooking meat, with some salad, makes for a joyous experience. A glorious version in Istanbul involved pistachio nuts. Meaty, fatty, spicy — I would go for reds with big gobs of dark fruit, a ballsy Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Argentinian Malbec, Aussie Shiraz - that kinda thing.
CHICKEN SHISH - The 'vanilla' of the kebab world, but some mangals marinade their chicken in such a way, that suddenly chicken is not the boring option any more. There is often some heat from the spice of the marinade involved too. A broad-shouldered white or lighter red are the wines to think about here, so perhaps New World Chardonnay that doesn't have too much of a slap of oak, such as a Chardonnay from Mornington Peninsula, Australia (I love Kooyong), or South African or New Zealand Chardonnay or white varietals with a bit of lushness to them - a New World Pinot Gris perhaps. Tempranillo from Spain, or Grenache dominated- Rhône reds should feel at home here too.
LAMB SHISH - The classic cubes of lamb shoulder are the archetypal Turkish kebab item, and no kebab feast would be complete without it. Reds from Ribera del Duero work very well here as do fuller-bodied reds from the Languedoc-Roussillon and South-West France such as Cahors. (These tend to be great value, too).
QUAIL - If you're lucky, a good mangal will have quail on the menu. A chance to pull out your favourite Pinot Noirs and lighter reds. My ideal would be a Californian Pinot Noir, something from the Sonoma Coast. Or top red Burgundy, if you are bringing the wine. Thanks.
LAMB BELLY - Another option which won't always be there but is a joy to eat, stripping the meat and fat from the bone until there is no DNA left. Reds with great acidity work best to slice through all of that fat, so good Northern Rhône Syrah is an option here: St Joseph, Cornas, or Côte-Rôtie if someone else is paying. Sonoma Coast Syrah is having a bit of a moment too. Step forward, Arnot-Roberts Syrah, which is brought in by Roberson Wines.
Any kebab feast will involve a whole host of flavours, a melange of spice and fat, meat and smoke, and it may be hot, sweaty, and bloody noisy. When it comes down to these myriad factors, wine matching thankfully takes a step back from the discussions of perfect wine combos and you may end up surprising yourself with the combinations that work.
I enjoyed a white that sailed through every course without flinching in the face of the assault of smoke, meat, spice and fat-slicked fingers. This accolade fell to Ataraxia Chardonnay 2012, from South Africa, made by husband and wife team Kevin and Hanli Grant. A modern barrel-fermented Chardonnay with plenty of elegance alongside the heft of New World fruit.
Right, I'm off to Green Lanes in Harringay**, N16, for the mother of all kebab crawls...
* Marks & Spencer has recently started listing one which I made my wine of the week a few weeks back.
** There may be those of you that wonder whether this should be Haringey. I did but Zeren assures me that's how the locals spell it!
Zeren Wilson is a food and wine writer with a background in the wine trade. He publishes his own blog Bitten & Written.
Photo © Jacek Chabraszewski - Fotolia.com