A visit to Bursa İskender Kebabı® feels as if you’ve stepped right into the war room of the İskenderoğlu family’s never-ending quest to establish ownership over the İskender kebab, a plate of döner laying on a bed of cut flatbread doused with tomato sauce and butter and served with a scoop of cool yogurt on the side. The tables and walls of the restaurant are covered with literature about what the owners see as their family’s inheritance, but the rest of the world seems to consider public domain.
In Bursa we ate at the flagship restaurant and, by chance, we found a branch on the side of the road in Susurluk. But in addition to the official İskender kebab, we admit to eating dozens of delicious pirated copies all over the world, so we feel comfortable speaking as an authority on the subject. In Istanbul, though there are many tasty options for this specialty, the best one belongs to its “originator,” Kebapçı İskender in Kadıköy.
As our placemat informed us, the restaurant holds the trademarks for Kebapçı İskender, Bursa İskender Kebapçısı, Bursa Kebapçı İskender, İskender Kebabı, İskender Kebapçısı and Hakiki İskender Kebabı. (A warning to anyone named İskender: steer clear of this restaurant; they even hold the trademark on your first name.) According to the restaurant’s website, the kebab’s inception was in Bursa in the late 19th century, when İskender effendi took roasted lamb to new heights by turning the spit upright – the modern vision of döner – and shaving the meat over chopped pide, adding a sauce to the result. The İskenderoğlu descendants not only claim the recipe as their family’s heritage, but also credit their grandfather with inventing vertically roasted döner.
A good İskender kebab takes a while to prepare, so we had plenty of time to ponder these claims while we waited for our order. In a recent issue of Yemek ve Kültür we’d seen photos of vertical döner kebab taken in Istanbul in the 1850’s, nearly 20 years prior to the date of invention claimed by the İskenderoğlu family. Even earlier sources in the same article describe vertical döner kebab being sold on the streets of Istanbul. And what are the chances that those documented preparations of döner were the first in the history of roasted meat? We are certain that once the mosaics of Haghia Sophia are fully uncovered, we’ll see divine depictions of Byzantine-era döner.
Our senses snapped back to the intense smell of browned butter sizzling in a skillet before us. This is what in Turkish is known as the püf noktası, or the crux of the preparation, in which the waiter drizzles rich melted butter all over the ingredients assembled on the plate. The butter rampaged through, ravaging the yogurt, scalding slices of tomato, softening the green pepper and conspiring with long slices of döner in a conspiracy to soak the slightly crispy pide with otherworldly flavor. Fork in hand, it was easy to forget that this place was on the frontlines of a battle. Dredging delicious smoky shavings of lamb döner and cubes of pide through buttery yogurt, we didn’t even care to estimate the number of hours that must have been spent in the notary office collecting all of those trademarks.
Above our table, we noticed a framed picture of İskender effendi scowling down at us above several rows of his descendants. We wondered if he would feel honored or outraged by the fact that three other places on the very same street are selling a dish named after him. Despite their efforts, his grandsons may have failed at being the only İskender Kebabı, but by our measure they have succeeded at serving the best one. That’s an inheritance defended in the kitchen, not the courtroom.