I ate a lot of good things when I was in Istanbul last winter—eggs scrambled with tomatoes and chilies, flatbreads topped with cheese and eggs, teeny tiny dumplings served with yogurt and sumac—but kebabs, made with juicy lamb meat molded around flat metal skewers and grilled over live coals were the kind of thing that even at their worst, were still pretty freaking awesome.
The most famous come from Adana, the fifth largest city in Turkey, and they're quite strict about what constitutes a *real* Adana kebab. Like many protected regional dishes, the definitions are designed around a No True Scotsman-style rhetoric (think: hand-chopped lamb meat and fat from the tail of a spring lamb that has grazed on nothing but budding sumac blossoms, aged in sunlight for nor more than 13 hours and no fewer than 12, seasoned with dried roasted chilies and the sweat of a bearded Turkish butcher) making it all but impossible to recreate a true Adana kebab anywhere outside of Adana. But that's okay. A good imposter still tastes just as good.
The grilled meat is typically served as a platter with rice and salad, or inside a tightly rolled wrap made with Turkish lavash, along with a red onion and parsley salad seasoned with sumac. Before rolling up the bread, the grilled meat is sprinkled with a mixture of cumin, sumac, salt, and roasted chilies. It all gets washed down with ayran, a salty yogurt-based drink.
After I got home from Turkey (along with the three-foot flat steel skewers I packed into my carry-on luggage*), I cooked kebabs every night for a few weeks, using the smoked chilies and sumac I picked up from an Istanbul spice market to season my lamb. I also tried to find a suitable way to replicate those flavors using ingredients you can find in Western supermarkets, but that was a failure. You can sort of fake the Turkish chilies by using red chili flakes and a pinch of smoked paprika, but that sumac? Forget about it. There is no substitute for its distinctly tart, lemony flavor (and no, lemon is not the answer).
* One small detail I hadn't considered: it's not easy to find a place to rest three-foot skewers packed with meat. But then I discovered serendipitously that they fit perfectly over my sink.
Want to make these yourself? Here's my suggestion: just pony up and buy the spices online. You can get good Urfa pepper flakes and sumac from Amazon, and a bag will last you for a whole summer's worth of tasty lamb-grilling.*
* I've read various reports that the chilies used in the Adana kebab they sell all over Istanbul are not dried Urfa chile, but rather fresh green capsicum, but when I inquired at a couple of shops and tasted the chili they were using, to my palate it was closest to the rich, fruity, smoky flavor of those Urfa biber peppers. Call me out if you must!
The Meat Mixture
Once you have the spices, the process is pretty simple, especially if you've read up a bit on the science of sausage. A good minced kebab, after all, is very much like a sausage on a stick, and like a sausage, the key elements are salt content, and proper mixing.
To start, you want ground lamb meat (or a mixture of ground lamb and beef if you prefer) with a fat content of around 20%. To this, I add 1.5% salt by weight, along with my spices. Salt does more than season the meat, it also dissolves the muscle protein called myosin.
Why is this important? Because once the myosin is dissolved, subsequent mixing and kneading will cause those proteins to cross-link with each other, creating a tight network that helps the sausage retain juice as it cooks and gives is a pleasantly springy texture.
Need proof? This is what happens when you neglect to salt or knead your meat. Those with weak constitutions might want to avert their eyes now:
You can physically see the salt and kneading at work: as the meat mixture is kneaded in a bowl (or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, if you have one), it'll start out as a solid mass, eventually getting stickier and sticker until it starts to leave a thin layer stuck to the side of the bowl.
Once it starts to coat the sides of the bowl like that, it's ready for the next step.
At this stage, I add some ice cold water, which helps add a bit of moisture and ensures that everything stays cold (if the sausage mixture gets too hot, it will leak out fat). A few more minutes of mixing, and it's ready to form.
If you have flat skewers, now is the time to break them out. They aid immensely in turning the meat as it cooks. Round wooden skewers like these will work, but you'll have to be much more delicate with the formation and cooking process.
Pro-tip: keep a bowl of water nearby and moisten your hands before working with the tacky meat mixture to prevent it from sticking to you.
In Turkey, the meat is cooked by setting the skewers over a pit of smoldering coals. The skewers are supported on either end, but there is no grill grate to speak of. If you have kick-ass three-foot skewers like I do, you can remove the grate of a coal grill and lay the skewers directly across the empty kettle, positioning the kebabs so that they are close-to-but-not-directly-over the hot coals in order to prevent flare-ups.
If you don't have those skewers, the kebabs cook just fine on a standard grill grate.
As they cook, I sprinkle them with a mixture of salt, cumin, and sumac—the same stuff that I serve on the side once they're finished cooking.
The kebabs, with plenty of fat, water, and salt, are quite forgiving to cook. Unlike a normal sausage, they don't have a casing, so you don't need to worry about them bursting.
They're also relatively flat, which means that cooking them through before the exterior burns is not really an issue. The most important part of an Adana kebab is forming the raw mixture properly. After that, it's very hard to mess up.
The last hurdle is finding the right bread. If you happen to live near a Middle Eastern bakery that makes good lavash, you're in luck. Otherwise, regular old pita bread will have to do.
To warm it up, place the bread directly on top of the kebabs for the last few moments of cooking. this prevents the bread from burning, and also lets it pick up some of the flavorful juices and steam from the meat in much the same way as a good slider bun will absorb the flavor of the beef and onions griddling underneath.
It's a Wrap
With the kebabs cooked and the bread warmed, all you have left is to wrap it up. I use the traditional accompaniments: slices of good tomato, red onions tossed with sumac, and fresh parsley leaves, along with a sprinkle of the spice mixture. On the side you'll often find pickled hot peppers. The closest thing I've seen stateside are the pickled sport peppers you can get on a Chicao-style hot dog. Barring those, jarred pickled pepperoncini are a good substitute.
Kebab-makers spend a long time learning how to form those kebabs properly—thin with a wavy surface is considered the ideal. Most likely your kebabs will look like mine: as fat and clumsy as the fingers they were made by. But don't worry, so long as you follow the salting and mixing steps properly, they'll be packed with flavor and juice, and that's about all you can ask for.
They might not pass muster with the Official High Council of Adana Kebab Certification, but you know what? I'm too busy and content stuffing my face with tasty grilled lamb to really care about all of that.