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5:16 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

In Iraq, Laying Claim To The Kebab

Originally published on Tue August 13, 2013 8:54 pm

When you hear the word "kebab" in America, you might think of skewers with chunks of chicken or beef and vegetables, marinated and grilled on coals or gas. But say "kebab" in the Middle East, and it means a lot of things — chunks of lamb or liver on skewers, or the more popular version of grilled ground meat logs found in Turkey, Iran and much of the Arab world.

If you spend enough time in the Middle East, you learn it can be hard to pinpoint the origins of things. Everybody claims to have invented hummus, flatbread and even yogurt. And don't even try to figure out who invented the kebab.

I talked to a historian of Arab medieval food on my last trip to Iraq. He told me the word is Arabic in origin and comes from the word keba, which means "to turn."

My guide to the Iraqi version of the kebab is Sami al Hilali, a longtime colleague, friend and really good cook.

Hilali says he uses a combination of lamb, beef, lamb fat, onions, parsley and spices, all ground up with his hands. He then molds the mixture onto skewers. The skewers are not the kind of skewers many Americans use — they're flat, wide and look sort of like a blunt sword.

When Hilali is ready to cook, he puts together about 18 skewers and heads outside. He uses a grill that's more like a 3-foot long trough with hardwood charcoal. He's oriented a fan to blow air over the coals and heat them up faster. The sparks are bright orange and look like fireworks.

Isra al Rubei'i, who is helping with the food, says the fan is a matter of practicality.

"Sometimes it's without a blower; using a manual fan would ... give it a more delicious flavor," she says. "But this is just to save time, you know, when you have many skewers to grill."

When the kebabs are cooked, Hilali prepares a plate with bread that will be their final resting place. Rubei'i says the bread is essential.

"The best part is the flatbread that is soaked in the fat coming out of a charred kebab skewer. You know they fight over this one," she says, laughing.

The Iraqi medieval food historian who shared the origin of the word kebab also told me another story about them: They appear in a book from the southern Iraqi city of Basra called The Book of Misers. It was written in the 9th century.

The miser in this story is a courtly man who invites people to his garden. He tells the guests, "Here's the stream, and here's the fire. Catch your fish and make your kebab."

It's the first known mention of the word. My friends nod, knowingly, as if to say, "You see? It all comes from Iraq." Then we get on with our eating.

I've had kebab all around the region — Arab kebab, Turkish kebab and Persian kebab. They're all different, and they're all pretty good. In the end, it doesn't really matter who invented kebab. What matters is that fire has touched meat, that the meat is good, and the company is even better.

This post is part of Global Grill, a summer series from All Things Considered that pulls apart the smoky flavors of grilled foods from around the world.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Say the word kebab here in America and people think of skewers with chunks of chicken or beef, maybe vegetables. In Turkey, Iran and much of the Arab world, it can mean a lot of other things - lamb or liver on skewers or ground meat logs.

For our series the Global Grill, Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: If you spend enough time in the Middle East, you learn it can be hard to pinpoint the origins of things. Everybody claims to have invented hummus, flatbread, even yogurt. And don't even try to figure out who invented kebab. What we do know is the word kebab is Arabic in origin, as I found out on my last trip to Iraq.

So it turns out - I just checked. I talked to a historian of Arab medieval food today. And he says kebab comes from the Arabic word keba, which means to turn.

These days, my Iraqi friends tell me the word keba means something else. To fall down and roll. OK. Our guide to Iraqi kebab is Sami al Hilali, a longtime colleague and friend and a really good cook. Isra al Rubei'i helps with the food and the explanations of all things Iraqi. Sami says he uses a combination of lamb, beef, lamb fat, onions, parsley and spices, all ground up with his hands. He then molds this mixture onto skewers.

So the skewers, yeah, they're not the kind of skewers that we would see.

SAMI AL HILALI: Yes.

MCEVERS: They're just like flat and wide. It really does kind of look like a blunt sword.

Sami says you should grill more than just meat.

HILALI: Should be making tomato with the kebab.

MCEVERS: Sami does about 18 skewers and heads outside.

HILALI: Now, I'm going to start the fire.

MCEVERS: OK. So we need to describe this grill setup here. This is like eight-inch wide by three-foot long trough with this hardwood charcoal and the signature Iraqi invention. Sometimes it's a fan. This is like a...

HILALI: Yes.

MCEVERS: ..like a high-tech air blower.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: So you turn the blower on, and then all these sparks start flying. It's totally like fireworks. Wow. So as the blower blows, the coals are getting like super, you know, orange like really, really fast.

ISRA AL RUBEI'I: Sometimes it's - without a blower, I'm using a manual fan...

MCEVERS: Right.

RUBEI'I: ...would be, yeah, would give it even a more delicious flavor. But this is just to save time, you know, when you have many skewers to grill.

MCEVERS: Sure. OK. So now, the kebabs are going on the fire.

HILALI: Now, you smell.

MCEVERS: Now, you start to smell it. Sami and Isra prepare a plate that will be the kebabs' final resting place.

You put the kebab on top of bread. Why is that?

RUBEI'I: Because this would taste the best. The best part is a flatbread that is soaked in the fat dripping out of a charred kebab skewer. It tastes so good. You know, they fight over this one.

MCEVERS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: OK, bread goes down. Skewer comes out.

We head to the table we've set outside and get started on the meat.

Mm-hmm. It's so good.

RUBEI'I: Sami, it's so, so, so.

MCEVERS: It's so good.

I tell the guys another story I heard from the Iraqi medieval food historian about a book from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a book written in the ninth century called "The Book of Misers." The miser in this story is a courtly man who invites people to his garden.

And he tells the guests, here's the stream, and here's the fire. Catch your fish and make your kebab.

It's the first known mention of the word kebab. My friends nod, knowingly, as if to say you see? It all comes from Iraq. Then we get on with our eating.

And then every other bite, you just take a fresh piece of arugula, basil, parsley, wash it down with some salty yogurt drink.

I've had kebab all around the region. Arab kebab, Turkish kebab, Persian kebab, they're all different, and they're all pretty good. I figure it doesn't really matter who invented kebab. What matters is that fire has touched meat, that the meat is good, and the company is even better. (Foreign language spoken)

HILALI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

Mm. OK. I'm eating it.

HILALI: I wish your daughter will...

RUBEI'I: Me too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.