Turkey’s iconic doner kebab has been perfected at Kardeşler Lokantası, a small restaurant in Istanbul’s humble neighbourhood of Kemerburgaz, thanks to the dedication of its 86-year-old owner Mehmet Akkaya.
Hidden in the urban high-rise sprawl of Istanbul’s European side is a dense patch of forest stretching for miles, an oasis in a desert of concrete. Nestled in this sea of green, sandwiched between Istanbul Airport and the rest of the city, is the quaint neighbourhood of Kemerburgaz. With its modest two-storey houses and corner shops, it isn’t what you’d call a major tourist attraction, but Istanbulites know this is the home of the best doner kebab in the city.
Like the rest of the community, Kardeşler Lokantası is low-key. There is no valet or million-dollar Bosphorus view. In fact, not much catches the eye about the restaurant’s single-storey venue other than the juicy doner being spun and expertly shaved in the front window and the steady stream of customers flowing in and out through the long strands of ’70s-style beads at the entrance. The magic happens inside, where the food speaks for itself, and it spins tales of original recipes and pride in a job well done.
The restaurant’s owner and founder, 86-year-old Mehmet Akkaya, has been there virtually every day for 45 years to serve loyal customers. He has a soft-spoken yet welcoming air, and it’s easy to see why regulars make sure to say hello before paying their bill. Akkaya sat down with Culture Trip to tell us how his restaurant, which opened in 1974, has withstood the pressure of Istanbul’s rapid modernisation.
Akkaya started cooking when he was 10. “These are all our recipes,” he says of his menu. “We created them. I worked with a chef as an assistant and learned over the years. Now, my son is over there at the cash register, and my nephew is working with us too.” The family-run business offers a warm atmosphere for its customers, with strangers sharing a table at the restaurant’s busiest times. The dishes available on any given day keep warm in the cart near the back, where customers can take a gander at what Akkaya, who is happy to help you choose as he doles out meals, has created that day.
Istanbul has morphed into a modern metropolis over the past 45 years, and Kardeşler’s food has stood the test of time and change. “Years ago, there were 40 to 50 coal mines in this area, and we stayed open nearly 24 hours a day because we were the truckers’ favourite place to eat. Every mine had 100 trucks that travelled along this road every day to transport coal. This road was full of trucks,” says Akkaya. The mines have long since closed and the area has been widely gentrified, but according to Akkaya, God’s been on his side. “Allah has provided new customers. Now we get factory workers, bank managers, market owners, doctors and almost any other type of profession you can think of. ”
For 40 years, Akkaya made or oversaw the making of the dishes and his famous doner kebab, but he has now passed the tradition down to one of his sons. “Nowadays, my other son comes in at 3am to start the soups for our customers, who start coming at 5am, and then they start on the main dishes and cutting meat for the doner.”
Popular since the 17th century, there are few Turkish foods more iconic than a slowly spinning rotisserie of doner kebab. Originally, the kebab was made with lamb, but nowadays it is prepared with a mixture of lamb and beef, just beef or even chicken – and the quality varies greatly. Though many restaurants buy pre-made kebabs, the best doner venues, like Kardeşler, prepare their own.
Akkaya has beef transported from the coastal province of Balıkesir, a region 300 kilometres (186 miles) away that is known for its quality livestock. “We buy our meat from Balıkesir, so it is always fresh, and we use a variety of cuts for our dishes. The meat we use is some of the best in the country. We buy large pieces, cut it ourselves and use the bones to make broth for our soups. Some cuts are used for the doner; others are used to make our kebabs and our main dishes. Doner is made from many different cuts of beef, specifically the brisket and thigh, and layered with cuts of lamb.”
Early every morning, the cooks at Kardeşler prepare a doner kebab weighing in at around 70 kilograms (154 pounds) – around 20 percent is lamb, and the rest beef. The kebab sells out by 3pm, every day.
Slicing the doner from the rotisserie requires a steady hand and well-trained professionals are often known for their short tempers, which, according to Akkaya, is a prerequisite for the job. Chuckling to himself, he says, “If our master carver wasn’t always grumpy, the doner wouldn’t taste as good.”
Aside from moody carvers, what has led to success where so many others have failed? Akkaya says it’s simple. “I love my job! I’m always here. What else can I say?”
Turkish cuisine relies heavily on soup, often eaten as a hearty breakfast with fresh bread. Sticking with tradition, Kardeşler offers a nice variety of classic Turkish soups starting at 5am, including yellow lentil (mercimek) and spiced red lentil (ezogelin). They also offer Turkish favourites tripe (işkembe) and head meat (kelle paça) soup, served with garlic sauce and vinegar, as well as beef broth, known as wedding, or düğün, soup.
If you’re looking for comfort food, the baked macaroni (fırında makarana) with béchamel sauce or stuffed, fried meatballs (içli köfte) fit the bill. For those watching their waistline, the baked artichokes (enginar) stuffed with peas, diced carrots and potatoes are also excellent.
In addition to their amazing doner, Kardeşler offers slow-cooked white beans (kuru fasuliye) and chickpeas (noghurt) with either white rice or bulgar pilaf, daily. Their other main dishes change according to the season but often include stuffed vegetables, aubergine kebabs (patlacan kebap), stuffed lamb liver (ciğer sarması) and a variety of sautéed or baked meats served with potatoes or rice. If you’re looking for something grilled, they also offer steaks and spiced meatballs (köfte).
Remember to save room for dessert, because the baked rice pudding (sütlaç) topped with chopped hazelnuts is a must. They also offer an almond pudding (keşkül) and syrupy cookies called şekerpare, both of which are great with a cup of tea.