The great doner kebab rush of 1982
Doughnuts and burritos are fads that come and go but late-night kebabs are here forever
Get stuck in: the not-so-ancient delicacy known as a doner kebab. Photograph: Rob Lawson
Let me take you back to the summer of 1982. Lexicon of Love by ABC was spreading gold lamé glee throughout otherwise miserable nations. And new, exciting cuisines were transforming the post-pint culinary scene.
I returned to Dublin from a summer in Limerick to find my university friends raving about a middle-eastern sensation. “Why don’t we get a kebab?” one suggested. We had not yet drained the kegs. It was early in the evening. The notion was suggested as a sane option for the sober diner.
I could hardly have been more confused if he had mentioned Lobster Thermidor. I knew what a kebab was, of course. People like James Bond and Zorba the Greek had eaten them on screen. Contemporaneous holiday programmes talked baffled Irish viewers through the mechanics as if explaining quantum field theory to a baboon. Hunks of food were placed on skewers and then grilled over flaming wood. This seemed like an unimaginably exotic dish to encounter off the Lower Rathmines Road.
No, no. You’re thinking of a ‘shish kebab’ there
I remember my pal leaning back and snorting at this display of provincial ignorance. “No, no. You’re thinking of a ‘shish kebab’ there,” Robert Carrier puffed. “Here in Dublin we’ve taken to a variety known as the ‘doner kebab’. The meat is carved from one big skewer and served in unleavened bread called ‘pita’. All the young taste-makers are eating them. You can’t get that Fintan O’Toole away from a doner.”
Okay, I made up that very last bit. But the rest is accurate. I have never again felt so sophisticated. Think of François Mitterand covering his head and dining on roast ortolan for the very last time. A mere peasant. We had chilli sauce, grilled peppers and a long green thing that I wasn’t sure was actually supposed to be there. The world was before us.
I bring this up to offer some contrast with the current, much-discussed craze for doughnut shops. Writing in this newspaper, Conor Pope noted that about 20 such establishments have opened in Dublin. This was way back in June. So we can safely assume that the number has trebled in the interim. There is scarcely a foodstuff that fails to make an appearance in deep-fried dough somewhere about the capital. Doughnut Go Gently offers peanut butter flavoured with burnt almonds and sesame purée. Somewhere else using a weaker pun packs honeyed rosehips around maple-cured bacon. Another place probably does something with cabbage. (By the way, I’m copyrighting “Doughnut Go Gently”. So don’t think about robbing it.)
This is nothing to the Great Doner Rush of ’82. Within a few months, the squat lump of rotating lamb-style meat became unavoidable.
They were being sold in places where no person had previously encountered hot food
Remembering the months before the Wall Street Crash, Joseph Kennedy said that he knew it was time to sell when his shoeshine boy began offering stock-market tips. Something similar happened with the kebab.
They were being sold in places where no person had previously encountered hot food. Every second newsagent found a space for kebab apparatus between the cigs and the litres of Cidona.
How had the nation coped to this point? We could scarcely remember a time when you couldn’t buy faux-Mediterranean cuisine while having your keys cut or your jacket dry-cleaned.
No ancient delicacy
It was more like tulip fever – the bulb-trading mania that engulfed Holland in the 17th century – than the current, relatively restrained enthusiasm for doughnuts or the passion for burritos than preceded it.
The craze eventually ebbed. The doner kebab remained available to the ossified reveller, but its sale was restricted to places where you’d normally expect to find food. Much later, we learned that, not quite an ancient delicacy, the doner was, in the form we knew it, perfected by Turkish Gastarbeiter in Berlin during the 1960s. Nobel prizes have been handed out for lesser achievements.
The recent fads play to more testy rhythms. One has scarcely adjusted to the ubiquity of burrito places before they are replaced with doughnut joints.
I can remember being served “spaghetti Bolognese” beside scoops of mashed potato and cabbage in Longford
Some don’t quite set in. The bubble tea movement didn’t play so well outside Asian communities. We didn’t embrace the cupcake with as much enthusiasm as did our American cousins.
But the culinary buzz and clatter continues. I’m there for pork pies if it happens. You can have “Pork by Pork-west” for free.
Listen to me. All this modish scoffing can become annoying. But those of us who can remember the years before the Doner Rush are here to tell you that everyday food used to be awful. I can remember being served “spaghetti Bolognese” beside scoops of mashed potato and cabbage in Longford.
I am here to praise the posh doughnut, the decent burrito and, most of all, the now tragically undervalued doner kebab. There is nothing I would more enthusiastically eat tonight.