Perhaps the earliest Turkish restaurant in the UK was the tiny Istanbul Restaurant in Soho, central London, which served huge meat kebab and meze platters to customers visiting during the Second World War.
Today it is the site of a Japanese restaurant and there is precious little remaining at 12 Frith Street to suggest there was once a bustling Turkish restaurant here – but some photographs displayed in the Imperial War Museum help us to reimagine how much of a bustling, intimate place it once would have been.
Soon after the war, the Istanbul was joined by Costa’s Grill, a Greek-run business that served customers in Notting Hill.
However, it was to be another few decades before the famous doner kebab – that vertical slab of meat roasted for hours in front of an open fire – was introduced to the UK, most probably from Germany, where it was developed by Turkish migrants.
The people credited with doing so are Çetin Bukey and Konjay Hüseyin, who opened the Hodja Nasreddin Kebab House in 1966.
As their venue they picked Newington Green. At the time, this was an unsuspecting North London suburb, but it has since become one of the most vibrant Turkish-speaking areas in the country.
The Hodja Nasreddin’s goal was to import a method of cooking and serving doner meat that had proved a resounding success in Turkey, Cyprus and Germany. It soon became an unmistakeably bohemian spot for those looking seeking a different experience; Tom Jones and George Harrison were among those who were said to be frequent visitors to the place.
From North London, shops serving doner kebabs spread and multiplied through the 1960s and 1970s. There was particular growth in East London, with kebab restaurants operated by the south Asian community
operated alongside those serving Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine. Also Cypriot Turkish and Greeks opened many of first shops around the UK. Doner kebab shops soon began to gain popularity, although they were still something of an exotic and rare presence on high streets. The concept soon started spreading.
For instant Wardour street in central London saw its first kebab shop open in the 1970’s, following the hugely popular Sultan Ahmet which had already opened in Islington and Nese restaurant in Hackney.
And by the 1990s, just about every major town in the country could say it had at least one kebab stand of their own. Main reason was the recession in textile industry.
This sector was mostly employed the Turkishspeaking community. With the recession reaching its height in 1992, entrepreneurially minded Turkish and Kurdish workers were quick to set up small food and drink outlets.
After the London market well-established, demand began to spring up all over the UK. Many are in historic locations: take Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.
His works were sprinkled with anti-Turkish remarks – reflecting, perhaps, the sentiments of 16th Century England, a time when the very word “Turkish” had come to mean “cruel or barbarous”.
But perhaps he would have thought differently if his native Stratford-uponAvon had the wide choice of kebab shops it boasts today. In Blackpool, kebabs can be found nearly as readily as the traditional fishand-chips. Vendors in Scotland’s capital offer fine views of Edinburgh’s iconic castle.
And Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has a choice of four outlets within walking distance of her home in Windsor. Many have familiar names. “Istanbul Kebab House”, “Best Kebab” or “Doner King” are emblazoned on storefronts across the country. Others – such as “Yum Yum Kebab” or plain “Kebub” – operate under more unusual titles.