Tasty Shish Kababs

Who’s up for shish kabab grilled on (mostly) Turkish skewers from QBO? Folklore claims Turkish soldiers grilled meat on their swords over campfires during the invasion of Anatolia, thus inventing shish kabab. In Turkish “sis” can mean sword, spit, or skewer and “kebab” means roast meat, but there are similar-sounding word pairs in Arabic, Aramaic, Mazanderani and Farsi. The oldest written example of “kebab” appears in a 1377 Turkish text, but descriptions of kebab-like dishes are found in 10th-century Baghdadi sources too, so as great as the story of the hungry Turkish soldiers is, people have been cooking speared meat over fire forever. 

So Turkey’s real, probable claim to fame is not the actual grilled meat dish ‘shish kabab’, but rather, the innovative modification of standard skewers into something flatter and broader. Rotate a stick or standard skewer while grilling and the meat has a tendency to swivel around its cylindrical central support and end up always hanging heavier-side down. Result: one side gets burnt while the other is left undercooked. Bleh. Flattened steel skewers eliminate this problem. And, if you are having a BBQ where family members build their own shish kababs, the sand-cast brass finials on these skewers come in all different designs, helping one diner distinguish their skewer from another’s. When sold new, most sets of Mediterranean-style skewers do not duplicate designs; they’re usually an assortment.

The first batch of skewers here are almost certainly Turkish-made, with abstract Islamic motifs, Arabic-text cartouches (the Turkish language was written with the Arabic alphabet until 1928), and the star & crescent of the Turkish flag. In this context, the six-pointed star is probably not the Jewish Star of David, but the Islamic Sigil of Solomon used by early Muslim rulers. 

Of course handy Turkish-style flattened skewers spread abroad and nearly identical versions have been made in Greece and India for quite some time. All these traditional skewers have steel shafts and brass finials; often of animals you might actually cook up as kebabs such as lamb, goat, chicken, geese, game birds, cattle, rabbits, crab, lobsters, fish and pigs. Due to Islamic dietary restrictions, pork is not eaten by most people in Turkey, however in neighboring Greece souvlaki (garlicy grilled pork skewers) is considered a classic Greek street food. 

Other skewers seen at QBO sales include the heraldic double-headed eagle, which was used by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm and the Turkic beyliks of medieval Anatolia. Greek-made skewers also feature the double-headed eagle because it is also a symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church. And there are classical pre-Christian Greek motifs such as the lyre (harp), the Goddess Athena’s wise little owl, ancient coins, amphora, or medallions showing scenes from Greek myths.

Many Mediterranean-style skewers from India were made for export from the 1950s onward, including sets with cute vegetable finials for vegetarians, or characters from Indian stories in period garb. The all-identical rooster set here is probably one such Indian export. 

This last little grouping of critters is of unknown origin, but… ahem. While all are technically edible, I’m pretty sure the people buying these 3 skewers weren’t planning on dog, llama or kangaroo kababs! P.S. Did you know the second Friday in July is World Kabab Day? Well, now you do.