How the Kebab Became Catalan

BY ARON LESSER

Cataluña is a startling site of raw cultural diversity. In 1991, about 8,000 foreigners lived in Barcelona. By 2013, that number totaled over 80,000, roughly 50,000 of which arrived in a burst between 2004 and 2006.

Nowhere was the influx of foreigners more evident than in Barcelona’s El Raval, the “immigrant” section of the originally Roman city.  In the late twentieth century Moroccans, Pakistanis and Filipinos took advantage of low housing costs in this district, and by the 21st century they became the area’s most visible nationalities. El Raval is a mecca of new languages, cultures, and of course, food.  Nowhere is this more evident than in El Raval’s adoption of the elusive, ubiquitous kebab. Today, this multi-national, multi-ethnic concoction has become both a treat for cash-strapped Spaniards and the poster child of El Raval’s new, international vibe.

Eating the barri’s (the Catalan word for neighborhood) food used to be only for the most adventurous, or poorest, Barcelonians. Yet when the 2008 economic crisis struck the country, families couldn’t afford to eat out as much as they had, if at all. Exploring El Raval for lunch or dinner became a new, low-cost leisure activity. A full kebab lunch would only set one back €3.50, something rare in an area where even traditional Catalan light fare or fast food was out of reach for many Barcelonan working class families.

The origin of the “Döner Kebab” is a subject of debate among food historians and inebriated teens, but most agree that a Turkish immigrant to London put all the pieces together. The Döner is first mentioned in 18th century Ottoman travel books as a horizontal stack of meat. Only in London, a city that went from food disaster to food master, did it take its modern form as a multi-textured, sinfully rich mega-sandwich.  Over the past two decades the kebab has travelled the word adapting to one new home after another. It’s no surprise that the El Raval Döner tastes nothing like the ones to be found in London, Berlin, or Istanbul.

The preparation of the kebab is an essential part of the so-called ‘kebab experience.’  In the most revered places, fresh naan bread is made to order on a griddle and served while warm. Rotating skewered beef and chicken are crudely carved with loud, violent power-saws, and dumped into the bread—tools and techniques one certainly wouldn’t find in grandma’s kitchen. The pile of thinly shaved meat always holds an unexpected, salty crunch. While the meat crackles, the bread melts in one’s mouth.

Barcelona’s kebab, however, is all Catalan. The standard cucumber, tomato and onion toppings are topped off with the salsa blanca sauce, a creamy garlic topping that is Catalonia’s aioli’s cousin and the dressing of choice for fideuà and paella. The garlic sauce is barely spicy and always tickles the back of the throat. It moistens the crispy meat and ties the kebab together, ensuring that each bite stays close to home. The kebab therefore serves as a treaty between Catalonia and its immigrants. The bread and heavy-duty meat carving might be foreign, but the regional produce and the homey sauce make it just exotic enough for the whole city to bond over.

Today, most El Raval’s residents are native Catalonians. Yet the neighborhood never fully shed its immigrant label. Locals perceive “travelling” into the neighborhood as an adventure of entering a foreign land. Even though it is no longer a volatile barri, Barcelonans still tag the area as “exotic.” Catalonians’ perception of El Raval’s otherness, although changing, remains outdated.

Even as El Raval gentrifies and Catalonians populate its once-immigrant streets, the kebab remains central to the neighborhood and to the city’s identity. Locals take their lunch breaks at places like Bismillah Kebabish and Istanbul Doner, skipping over bland corporate and industrially produced options. Despite no evident lack of Kebab joints, the establishments nevertheless often run out of food by 7 p.m.

Barcelona still has its integration problems. Racial tensions and deeply rooted xenophobia inform its residents’ discourse on immigration, and Barcelonans still integrate slurs into their everyday conversations. “The Chino is closed.” “ Ok, I’ll pick up some fruit at the Paki on my way home.”  A traditionally homogenous Catalan population, like the rest of Europe, is still struggling to figure out how to interact with the waves of immigrants escaping violence, conflict and plain unemployment in the Middle East and Africa. Even so, the kebab’s popularity attests to the city’s changing relationship with immigrants. Accepting a people’s food may very well be the first step to accepting their culture. The kebab-eating experience and its ability to serve as an economic and cultural equalizer could even suggest a hopeful future for a new multi-ethnic Barcelona.




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