How the Doner Kebab Is Polarizing Italy's Palates and Politics How the Doner Kebab Is Polarizing Italy's Palates and Politics

How the Doner Kebab Is Polarizing Italy's Palates and Politics

by Joel Schalit

April 3, 2013

“If more people eat here, they’ll be nicer to Jews.” So my father was fond of saying, whenever he’d bring my brother and I to Guys and Dolls, one of London’s first Israeli fast food joints. The hummus was excellent, the shawarma was even better. 30 years later London is sprawling with falafel places. While Guys and Dolls no longer exists, in its former spot on the Kings Road sits a Maroush restaurant, part of a mid-sized Lebanese chain. Looking for a good plate of hummus, or a bowl of foul? You can still get it, but now it’s served to you by Arab waitstaff, not Israelis. Unsurprisingly, at all the locations I’ve eaten at, I’ve heard as much Hebrew as Arabic. It’s a reassuringly safe space for all Middle Easterners to congregate, and dine on the foods they share, without controversy.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” I remember telling my ex-bandmate Brock, as we prepared to leave London for Milan. “It will pretty much be only Italian food, from herein.” What I didn’t realize, however, was that in the country’s main economic centers— Milan, Turin, Genoa— you’ll encounter a sprawling, global foodie scene, the likes of which Italians could not have foreseen at the time Guys and Dolls first opened in 1976.

Triggered by mass immigration from the Middle East, South Asia, and China, for the last three decades, Italian food culture has been undergoing a huge transformation, leaving most Italians stumped for comparisons. Marco Polo’s introduction of Asian noodles in the Middle Ages? The arrival of hamburgers, after World War II? There’s something unprecedented about it. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these new foods is doner kebab. This shawarma-like meat mix, consisting of beef, veal and lamb, traditionally served in thick Turkish bread, has been repurposed by immigrants to form what might be best called Italian Muslim cuisine.

Initially made available in pizzerias, as though it were part of the same general family of western Mediterranean fast foods, “donerias,” serve a variety of adaptations of the dish, depending upon who runs them. Particularly in the northern city of Turin, which plays host to an especially diverse immigrant community. At Porta Palazzo’s pan-Middle Eastern Sindbad, for example, the results are fairly traditional. Doners are served arrotolato-style (in homemade tortillas, or yufka, as they are called in Turkish).

Original doner pizza image from Shutterstock

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How the Doner Kebab Is Polarizing Italy's Palates and Politics