The origin of the kebab may be boringly practical, but it offers an unparalleled journey into the unexplored cuisines of the world
THE EARLIEST description of kebabs may be found in Homer’s Odyssey—written in 8th century BC—in which a reference is made to strips of meat skewered for broiling. The delicacy made its way into the Persian language in 1377 when the term ‘kebab’, which means ‘frying/burning’, came into usage. Since then, kebabs have come a long way.
Like with all food, the origin of kebabs is boringly practical. It is said that soldiers out on long battles would ‘roast’ meat skewered on their swords over open fires. Its modest origins notwithstanding, the kebab rose in prominence through the centuries, owing to its opulent reconstruction in imperial households across the Islamic empires. Today, it has a presence across geographies, with many countries claiming their own versions of it—khorovats (barbeque) in Armenia, kavap in Uyghur, China, galawati in India.
The kebab came to India as a modest preparation of lightly seasoned and cooked meat in the 14th century along with the Mongols. But in its new home, the ‘land of spices’, the kebab could not retain its simplicity for too long and soon evolved, courtesy the culinary inventiveness of royal cooks.
Cut to many centuries later and the kebab forayed into the world of ‘franchise’ when the first The Great Kabab Factory (TGKF) restaurant opened at the only Radisson hotel in New Delhi (at that time) in 1998. It was a vast, expansive space. Delhiites, who till then were used to travelling to Jama Masjid or Nizammudin for kebabs, discovered a convenient destination. The restaurant was a huge hit and TGKF has since grown exponentially, becoming one of India’s original franchise brands.
However, with the familiar comes fatigue. To keep kebabs exciting, one has to expand the repertoire and lead the diner away from the familiar and towards the tantalising. Kebabs offer an unparalleled journey into the unexplored cuisines of the world. In fact, they can be a great primer to a new cuisine. Keeping this in mind, it seems, TGKF at Radisson Blu Marina, New Delhi, recently held a special promotion that expanded the kebab experience to other countries. It was aptly called ‘Kebabs of the World’ and took one on a journey across borders, from South Africa to Lebanon.
The festival offered the renowned TGKF galawati kebab—even the adventurous folks at Radisson wouldn’t dare leaving that one off the menu—but what was interesting was chef Pankaj Jha’s picks for the menu. The choices were made keeping in view the Indian palate, while offering an international selection.
South African Peri Peri Chicken was one that slid in very comfortably. Peri peri sauce, originally from Portugal, has found its way into South African, Angolan and Namibian cuisines. This sauce, made from a wide assortment of flavour-bursting ingredients—crushed chillies, citrus peel, onion, pepper, salt, lemon juice, bay leaves, paprika, pimiento, basil, oregano and tarragon—is used as a marinade and brings, despite the melange of flavour profiles, an interesting tanginess to the kebab without puncturing your tastebuds. It’s cleverly balanced and the chef excelled in the representation. Lebanon, most recently in the news for tragic violence, also boasts of a rich culinary heritage, one that is sidelined by its present circumstances. One of my richest culinary experiences, in fact, has been that of enjoying Lebanese food in open-air restaurants abroad and TGKF brought those memories alive. Samke harra (chilli fish) is a famous dish from the natural port city of Tripoli/Mina. A baked dish, the fish is slit and stuffed with a special lemon marinade and baked in an oven. Served with Tahini sauce, it is delicious and has made friends across borders. The fish used in this preparation can range from red snapper to salmon and the dish is considered part of ‘serious’ Lebanese cuisine.
However, the ease with which it was presented at our table made the experience intimate and fun, the flavours subtle and the texture delicate. The other kebabs on offer, like Egyptian falafel and batatata harra (Lebanon), were worthy inclusions as well. The wine on offer was a happy Malbec from Argentina that married well with all the meats on offer, leading me to wonder if Argentina has its own version of the kebab as well? Turns out, it does and it’s called asado!
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants
in India and abroad