In Gaziantep, Turkey, we eat kebabs from chic restaurant Imam agdas. Everything on the menu here revolves around mutton: the meat from male fatty sheep. It's a flavour that, once you get used to it (we're more used to lamb), becomes addictive.
This restaurant certainly has experience. They've been preparing kebabs in the traditional manner since 1887 - kebabs that are worth making the drive for. The secret is that half of the meat must consist of fat, which must be evenly worked into the mixture.
The kebabs here are seasonal. In winter they're threaded with pickled garlic; in spring, loquat (Japanese medlar), a sweet-sour orange-coloured fruit with large stones; in summer, firm eggplant; in autumn, onions. The following winter, perhaps Middle Eastern desert truffles or other mushroom varieties. The restaurant also serves delicious kebabs that have red-pepper paste (biber salasi) and crunchy bulghur kneaded into the meat. And everything on the menu comes with the smoky scent of the charcoal grill, plus a bowl of tangy ayran (lightly salted buttermilk). A real Turkish-Arab feast for the senses.
The Turkish cities of Adana, Gaziantep and Antakya are renowned for their kebab tradition; each has its own special version. In Gaziantep, when we tried the kebabs from Imam agdas restaurant, we just couldn't stop licking our fingers. Real Turkish kebabs are made with mutton, not lamb, and the minced (ground) meat must contain plenty of fat (from the tail), so ask your butcher to mince the right cut for you. Traditionally, kebabs are accompanied by an ice-cold glass of ayran, the salted yoghurt drink common in Turkey. This is easy to make yourself, if you want to, by diluting low-fat yoghurt with water and a little salt.
Cig kebab with burghul
Cig actually means 'raw', but we grill this kebab and serve it with burghul (bulgur wheat). Place 300g (10 1/2oz) burghul in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse under cold water, then set aside to drain. Grate two garlic cloves and finely chop one small onion; finely chop 1/2 bunch of parsley. Place all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl, along with 3 tablespoons of red-pepper paste, 1 tablespoon of Aleppo pepper and a pinch of salt, then add 300g (10 1/2oz) of twice-minced (-ground) fatty mutton (or lamb) and knead everything together using your hands for about 15 minutes.
Using wet hands, shape the kebabs around flat skewers. Make notches in the sides of the kebab, almost separating the ground meat into balls. Cook under a hot grill (broiler), or preferably over charcoal on a barbecue, turning every five seconds so that the fat doesn't leak out of the meat, until browned on all sides and cooked through.
Basic Gaziantep kebab recipe
Knead 60g (1lb 5oz) of twice-minced (-ground) fatty mutton (or lamb) with 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper and 2 teaspoons of salt for about 15 minutes. Using wet hands, roll the meat into small balls and thread the balls onto flat skewers, alternating other ingredients between the balls (see below for inspiration).
Cook under a hot grill (broiler), or preferably over charcoal on a barbecue, turning every 5 seconds so that the fat doesn't leak out of the meat, until browned on all sides and cooked through.
Bring 600ml (20 1/2 fl oz) of vinegar, 600g (1lb 5oz) of sugar, 600ml (20 1/2 fl oz) of water and 1 tablespoon of sea salt flakes to the boil in a large saucepan. Peel, rinse and drain about 500g (1lb 2oz) of garlic cloves, then pack them into a sterilised, airtight jar, fill the jar to the top with the vinegar mixture, and seal.
Set aside in the refrigerator to marinate for at least one week and up to two months. Grill (broil) the pickled garlic along with the kebabs from the basic Gaziantep kebab recipe (see above).
Thread small, whole shallots between each ball of meat in the basic Gaziantep kebab recipe (see above) and cook as per the recipe.
Cut an eggplant into pieces and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Thread the eggplant pieces between each ball of meat in the basic Gaziantep kebab recipe (see above) and cook as per the recipe. You could also substitute the eggplant for chestnut mushrooms.
Add 225g (8oz/1 1/2 cups) of finely chopped pistachios to the minced (ground) meat in the basic Gaziantep kebab recipe (see above).
Roughly chop two red onions and blend with 1/2 bunch of parsley. Add 600g (1lb 5oz) of twice-minced (-ground) fatty mutton (or lamb), 2 teaspoons of sumac, 1 tablespoon of red-pepper paste, 1 tablespoon of Aleppo pepper and 2 teaspoons of salt and knead for a good 15 minutes, until well combined.
Using wet hands, shape the meat into long, wide kebabs around flat skewers. Cook under a hot grill (broiler), or preferably over charcoal on a barbecue, turning every 5 seconds so that the fat bastes the meat; grill some halved tomatoes and whole mild Turkish green chillies alongside.
Thinly slice 1 bunch of parsley and 2 red onions, and mix them together with 2 teaspoons of sumac and a pinch of salt. Remove the kebab meat from the skewers and serve on pides topped with the grilled green chillies and tomatoes, and the onion-and-parsley salad.
Extracted from Under the Mediterranean Sun by Nadia Zerouali and Merijn Tol, published by Smith Street Books. $55.