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The kati roll
A shop selling Doner Kebaps in Istanbul and (above) kati rolls from Nizam’s

As a young adult in the 1970s, eating out on the weekends after a night at the hottest disco in town — In and Out at The Park — a gang of us would eventually land up at Nizam’s around 1am. Here we devoured freshly-made kati kebabs — either kheeri (cow’s udders), beef, chicken, potato or mutton — tossed with sliced onions and chopped green chillies and sprinkled with lime juice nestled in parathas just off the griddle with its unique paper wrap. It was the quintessential meal after a Saturday night of partying.

During British Raj, Calcutta was jam-packed with eateries serving a variety of kebabs, rotis and parathas. From kebabs like the boti, pasinda, tikka, handi, shammi to breads like the bakarkhani, roomali and tandoori rotis to chapattis, naans and parathas, plain or stuffed to Daccai and Mughlai. Most of the eating houses were basically shacks on the roadside with a few benches and tables laid out and people had to dine alfresco, so to speak, under not the most hygienic of conditions.

Sheikh Raza in the early 1930s hit upon a brilliant idea and from a small shop behind Hogg’s Market (New Market) called Nizam’s, named after his son Nizamuddin, he invented the kati ka kissa or the kati roll as we now know it. The usual iron skewer was replaced by thin bamboo sticks, which were lighter and more manageable, and these gave these kebabs the name kati (meaning stick). Wrapped in paper so it was easy to go, it has become one of the most famous ‘fast’ foods throughout India and beyond.

DONER AT EARLS COURT

Cut to London where I was studying in the early ’80s, the doner kebab replaced the kati roll for me after a night of pub-crawling or after an all-night studying binge. We would end up at Earls Court Road where Turkish immigrants had set up doner kebab shops which stayed open all night long. The doner, as we know it today, was actually a German import into Britain. It was started by a Turkish immigrant, Mahmut Aygun, who was born in Turkey and moved to Germany at the age of 16 to open a snack stall. He invented the doner kebab nearly 40 years ago and it was first served in 1971 from his restaurant Hasir in Berlin. It was called a doner kebab after the Turkish word dondurmek, which means a rotating roast.

Kebabs, consisting of sliced lamb, mince meat and spices, on a rotating vertical spit, basted with lamb fat and sliced thinly had traditionally been served with rice or flat bread. In a moment of inspiration, Aygun saw that the future lay in putting the meat inside a pita bread, with a fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes and onions, a spicy tomato or yogurt sauce as topping, allowing customers the freedom to wander off into the night with their food and eat it as they wished. In Berlin today, you can find over 50 varieties of this kebab and it is one of the hottest-selling fast foods in Europe.

THE KATI IN NYC

Like the doner, the kati kebab has travelled across continents to New York City. Payal Saha started The Kati Roll Company from a small outlet in Bryant Park in Greenwich Village in 2002, realising that the New Yorker liked his/her food on the go and with a cosmopolitan food scenario, the kati roll fitted in very well. The early clientele were the late-night revellers and students. Today, there are over four outlets across the city and a new one in Soho, London.

There’s a variety of rolls on offer — Unda, Aloo Masala, Achaar Paneer, Mixed Veggies, Chicken Tikka, Beef Tikka, Shammi Kebab, Shrimp Masala, made with paratha or rotis, with or without sliced onions and chilli and with free delivery for orders over $20.

You can have two rolls and a beverage such as beer, wine, masala tea or soft drinks for about $12. I sampled the chicken, mixed veggies and the shrimp; they were all good and pretty close to the authentic Calcutta rolls.

DöNER KEBAP IN ISTANBUL

But having the authentic doner in Turkey on my recent visit was an eye-opener; it was so different from the ones in other European cities and the UK. The Döner Kebap, as it is called in Turkey, turns as the vertical spit rotates, in front of the heat source, which today is gas or electric but was originally charcoal. The meat directly opposite the heat source is properly roasted, the spit is rotated so that the cooked meat may be sliced off and then the uncooked portion can be exposed to the fire. Because the meat is vertical, it is self-basting, which helps account for its rich and aromatic flavour. These thin slices of meat are served in lots of different ways — plain, stuffed into Turkish bread as doner sandvic (sandwich), rolled into flat bread or durum, or laid atop diced flat bread and topped with sauces, or served with pilaf or rice.

Traditional doner is made from milk-fed lamb. From the 1980s, an alternative tavuk or chicken doner was introduced and has become extremely popular. Today it’s not unusual to see twin doners — lamb and chicken — cooking side by side and you can ask for a combination of meats.

The supremo of doners, however, is Alexander’s Roast Lamb, or Iskender Kebap named after the chef in the city of Bursa who created the dish in 1867. I had a version in Istanbul; slices of doner are sent to the kitchen, where they are laid over a bed of chopped flat bread, garnished with peppers and tomatoes, topped with savoury tomato sauce and browned butter, then quickly fired in the oven, served with dollops of yogurt on the side. It was absolutely delicious as was the durum or doner rolled in flat bread. The ordinary doner sandvic or durum is about 10 Turkish liras with a beverage, while the Iskender Kebap is about 22 Turkish liras.

The taste and smell of food evokes nostalgic memories in all of us; for me when I bite into a kati roll or doner kebab it takes me back in time to those night-outs of the ’70s.