The doner is one of Turkey's most abused dishes. If you've been to Istanbul you've undoubtedly seen it: a column consisting of layers of meat of indeterminable quality stacked vertically on a spit, turning from red to unappetizing grayish-brown as it sluggishly rotates beside an electric grill. Thin shavings of limpid meat laid on a mound of greasy pilav or a butterflied fluffy loaf with a few sad slices of tomato -- every write-up of Turkey's "must eat dishes" includes this monstrosity, the majority of versions of which are post drinking binge snacks masquerading as national culinary icon.
I'm not saying a doner can't be delicious, but so few -- so very, very few -- are.
Enter Erzurum's cağ kebabı ("cag" is pronounced JAH). It's said that the doner was invented in Erzurum, a sparsely populated northeastern Anatolian province of elevated plateaus and rolling yayla (high pastures) roamed by happily grazing sheep, goats and cows. Of this I am not cetain. But I do maintain that the cağ kebabı is the uber doner, doner as it should be and perhaps as it was meant to be, doner as the highest paean to the region's exceptionally flavorful pasture-raised livestock and a prime example of the Turkish ability to turn a simply prepared ingredient -- meat, grilled, in this instance -- into the core of a feast.
Think of the cağ kebabı as a twice-cooked doner: lamb stacked on a spit laid vertically over live coals, coaxed to mottled black coffee-milk coffee colored doneness, then sliced directly onto a skewer in small pieces, which are quickly charred again over another set of coals. The result is a melange of red meat bits, charred crusties and chewier medium-rare nubs, all kissed with (not drowning in) melted fat. The cağ kebabı is a Textural Feat of Meat if ever there was one.
Those meat-laden skewers are the center of a cağ kebabı meal, of course. But there are other elements too: ezme (thick gazpacho-like red pepper, tomato, garlic and parsley mash), grilled green peppers (diner's choice: sweet, spicy or both), chopped tomato-and-cucumber salad, slivered onions with lemon on the side for squeezing, bread (paper-thin lavash or thicker pide). Fabulously smooth and creamy salted sheep's milk yogurt adds another dimension of the animal to the meal.
A few days ago we stopped in Erzurum city en route to visit an itinerant cheesemaker deep in the province's interior. Come five o'clock the scent of grilling meat hung over the streets. Though we aren't huge red meat eaters when at home in Penang, and though we'd been consuming more than our share of beef in Kars province (Turkey's cow country), and though we weren't even sure we were hungry, the sight (and smell) of a lamb-laden rotisserie spitting fat onto coals in the front window of a smallish spot on the edge of Erzurum's old market area lured us in.
Cağ kebabı consumption is a personal thing. Some savor the meat on its own, following each bite with a nibble from a grilled pepper and a spoonful of ezme, while others loosen it from the skewer directly onto a piece of pide, adding a dab of yogurt before delivering kebap to mouth. At a table behind us two middle-aged men started with plates of cecil (salted string cheese) and honey, which they ate with lavash before moving on to meat, ezme and onion thickly sliced into rings rather than slivered.
Preferring a high lamb-to-carbs ratio, I went with lavash as my cağ kebabı delivery vehicle. And being American, I undoubtedly overdid it, slathering yogurt AND ezme on my bread before adding a few bits of kebap AND a sizeable slice of grilled pepper. The older gentleman with the broom moustache and natty wool cap sitting next to us kept it simple, waving away attempts by the waiters to serve accompaniments as he downed bite after bite of meat wrapped in folded sheets of lavash.
We'd already consumed two and a half skewers of meat each (not as much as it sounds -- maybe one third of a pound of meat each) and were stirring sugar into our tea before we learned of another accompaniment to the cağ kebabı: squares of thick pide skewered, dipped in fat and browned over the coals until crunchy. The men to our left worked their way through a plate of them, picking the squares up with thumb and forefinger and dragging them through puddles of sheep milk yogurt. This will be dessert, on our next visit.
Dadas Cag Kebab, 26 Kongre Caddesi, Erzurum. A 25+ year-old family-run spot. Does it serve the city's best cağ kebabı? No idea. We left satisfied.
For more images of the foods and ingredients we've been eating, and researching, this Turkey trip in Van, Kars, Ardahan and Erzurum visit Dave's instagram stream.