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The Story of Doner Kebab: The World's Most Popular Spitted Meat

03/31/2014 11:18 am ET | Updated May 31, 2014

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When it comes to fast food, America's got talent. But despite our wealth of remarkable menu items, there's one wildly popular international street food that's yet to crack the American market: the doner kebab (also spelled "kebap").

To learn the history of the spitted meat that the rest of the world loves to swallow, we interviewed Michael Heyne, founder of the Austin-based, Berlin-style beef slinger Verts Kebap. By the end of 2014, Verts will have 17 locations in Texas, making them the second-largest doner chain in the entire world. Dude kinda knows his spitted meat.

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According to Heyne, Germany is the current kebab capital of the world and, with 17,000 kebab slingers in the country, is largely responsible for its global presence. But the origins of the food (which translates to "spinning meat" and is properly spelled with a 'P' due to Turkish phonetics) date back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Instead of just kicking up their feet like their name suggests, Ottoman chefs changed the world of animal roasting by realizing that when meat was spitted horizontally, the fat dripped down into the fire, causing the flames to rise up and singe the meat. Turning the spit vertically kept flames in check and washed the meat in a tasty bath of fat.

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Sometime around 1870, the dish took its current ready-to-cut incarnation thanks to Iskender Efendi of Bursa. Bursa is the fourth-largest city in Turkey and the site of the Uludag mountains, which the Greeks originally referred to as Olympos. This should not be confused with the mythical Mount Olympus, even if you consider kebab to be the food of the gods.

The sliced meat gained popularity in Turkey, and, after World War II, a mass migration of Turks brought the food to Germany. Most folks agree that the first Berliner to put kebab in grilled bread was either Memhet Aygun in 1971 or Kadir Nurman in 1972, both of whom recently received glowing obituaries in British newspapers of record.

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