World of Kebab

The falafel was unlike any I’d ever seen. If the waiter had not identified it as such to the customer seated next to us, I’m not sure I’d have even known what it was. Cylindrical, toasted dark brown, they could very well have been kibbeh, pinecone-shaped, fried bulghur wheat pastries, stuffed with onions, ground meat, and pine nuts.

Delicately balanced upon a mix of rice, tomatoes and fries, the falafel stood out, as though they were some sort of consolation prize, awarded for knowing that of all the doner kebab parlors in Turin, this is the one place that gets it right. Offered by every local Mideastern establishment, falafel is on the list of must-avoid entrees. Not here.

Watching the waiter set down an additional side of hummus, my wife smiles at me and says, “This is the third weekend in a row we’ve come here.” Straightening myself out in my seat, staring at the newly arrived dish, I respond hungrily, “You couldn’t ask for a better respite from Italian food.” “You mean for Italian food,” Jennifer jokes.

That one might exchange northern Italian cuisine – Piemontese agnelotti and Ligurian focaccia – for such typically Lebanese-Palestinian mezze seems like a reasonable exchange. Equally rich fare, hailing from similarly iconographic Mediterranean cultures, for whom food is as central to local identity as religion, they make for ideal bedfellows.

“I can’t imagine better dining options,” I said, as I sipped a tiny, Turkish-style cup of warm, sweet tea. “Of course you wouldn’t,” laughed Jennifer. “It’s about your biography.” Jennifer, was right. This was as much about affirming the sensual pleasures of my narcissism, as an Israeli, who’d also grown up in Italy, as it was having a tasty meal. We were consuming me.

Our entreees arrive. None too soon, as our spectator role, being relatively recent arrivals to the city, had only served to enhance our appetite for something different. Recently relocated from Berlin, our objective was to dine on doner kebab, the Turkish-German dish, available on nearly every street corner in our neighborhood home of Neukolln.

Jennifer gets exactly what she likes to eat back east: Kebab arrotelato, or doner wrapped in a piadina, best known in Germany as durum, or in the Americas as a tortilla. Otherwise boasting the exact same filling as its Turkish sibling, Jennifer is in heaven. The translation is 1:1, with the sole exception of sesame paste in the place of yogurt.

Extremely picky about my doner – I always order it dry, like shawarma, with salad, but without sauce – my meal consists of a doner plate, rather than an archetypal Berlin street wrap. Thinking I am in a more Mideastern place, I forget to ask for it without sauce. When my dish arrives, I’m pleasantly surprised. Not only is there none. The meat, chips, and salad – yes, salad – sit on top of a thick bed of hummus and baba ganoosh.

Adding hummus to a fork full of meat, I decide that the balance has been tipped. This place is more of a Middle Eastern restaurant than a German-style Turkish fast food restaurant. The doner is just cover, a way of making the Arab menu competitive with all the other doner-heavy places catering to fans of eastern Mediterranean cuisine.

“Jews are model Middle Easterners in the West,” I recalled a Turkish lover I once had, telling me over her own homemade tripe soup, in Toronto. “We ought to be more like you.” I wondered if the owners of this restaurant were Arabs, not Turks, and imagined that Turkish food was a model for being model Middle Easterners in Europe.

Hearing a family at a nearby table transition in between Italian and Arabic woke me from my thoughts. The kids spoke most of the Italian. The parents spoke back to them in Arabic. The waiter paid special attention to them, speaking in Arabic. The children ordered in their parents native tongue, Italian words for drinks erupting in the middle.

Listening to the mix of languages, I was reminded of Yiddish, and wondered what an Arabic-Italian equivalent might sound like. I found myself engrossed in listening to the way the children mispronounced Italian words, and the parents, when speaking the little Italian that they did, pronounce syllables with their own regional Arabic accents.

The only other time I’d heard anything comparable, was back in Berlin, listening to Turkish school kids speak to each other in a mix of Turkish and German. The lack of purity, the clumsiness, was reassuring, given that I too, am foreign, and am even less self-assured about trying to speak anything other than the languages I was raised with.

Standing in line waiting to pay our bill, Jennifer and I surveyed all the other foods on offer. Tajines and couscous, sujuk, koshari, baklava and knafeh, roasted chicken, several different kinds of pizza. Every item on the menu was a stand-in for somewhere else: Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Italy. It was like driving from Turin to North Africa, and back.

“Where are you from?” asked the chef, who doubled as the cashier. We told him. He didn’t look enthused. “What about you? I asked. “I’m from Egypt,” he said. “Cairo.” I wasn’t surprised. The other döner place we frequent, in San Salvario, is also run by Egyptians. Its offerings are similarly eclectic, though it is a lot more pizza heavy.

I wanted to ask him about the menu. The variety of cuisines screamed out to me. Is it a mirror to the Turin immigrant community? Or is it a platform for educating Italians about the diversity of Middle Eastern life? The kind of diversity buried by rightist references to the encroaching “Arab world” as though it’s a culturally homogenous monolith.

My sense is that it is the former. The latter interpretation of the menu, as though it might be some kind of covert tool, is more about my own politically-driven flights of fantasy. I was getting ahead of myself. My imagination was simply trying to impose a sense of deliberateness on something that would happen of its own accord, irrespective of ideology.

Still, one can understand the impulse. Like my attraction to the idea of eating Arab food in Italy, it’s entirely driven by autobiography. The multiculturalism of the menu reminds me a lot of the kinds I used to see in Israel in the 1970s. My father, a well-travelled, Palestinian-born Jew, would point out where all the different cuisines came from to me.

“The kibbeh soup is Iraqi. The pasta entree is Moroccan. Of course the schnitzel, you’ve had that before. It’s like the veal Milanese that you like to eat in Italy. I think the Italians got it from the Austrians. You know where the Black Forest cake comes from.” That was Tel Aviv, I think, in the fall of 1975.

The idea, of course, was to give me some kind of idea about the breadth of Israeli Jewish society. Each one of these dishes denoted a point of origin, of immigration, for an Israel-in-the-making. Every time I see a menu like the one in Turin, I can’t help but stop myself from imagining a Europe that is already here.

Turin doner truck photo courtesy of Joel Schalit

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