Snack on a Spit

Middle Eastern kebabs are growing in popularity, but not without some controversy over their Muslim origins and nutritional value.

URBINO, Italy–Middle Eastern music mixes with the rich smell of charring meat as customers line up for a doner kebab.

There’s the sound of a drill, followed by metal tongs banging against containers filled with an assortment of vegetables ready to be stuffed into toasted pita bread.

Customers, mostly college students, replay last night’s soccer match or relive a party at the Bosom Pub nearby as they hand over a few euros and change they may have scraped together for the spicy snack.

This is the scene in Oriental Kebab on Via Mazzini, a pioneer in the city when it opened in 2005 as the first kebab shop, and now part of a growing—and sometimes controversial—trend in Middle Eastern dining in the middle of the mountainous Marche.

Oriental’s owner and manager is Chahhar Mohamed from Morocco who decided to bring the kebab to Urbino. Being Muslim, he knew that his road from Morocco to Urbino would be a risky one.

“I set out knowing that it could go either way,” Mohamed said in Italian through an interpreter.

But it was a risk he was willing to take. On Mazzini hill, the main hill leading from the entrance of the walled city to the central Piazza Della Repubblica, Oriental attracts many visitors and commuters, especially college students. The University of Urbino has 20,000 students, which overwhelms the city’s permanent population of only 15,000.

“It’s a good place, it’s important to bring it [kebabs] to young people. Young people are important to the city,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed was following in the footsteps of a Turksh immigrant to Germany in the 1970s, Mahmut Ayguns, who created the first doner kebab. Ayguns put slabs of seasoned meat stacked on a rotating metal skewer, cooking next to a vertical rotisserie. The meat, usually a mixture of lamb, goat, beef, chicken and turkey, is shaved from its outer layer, and then placed into a pita wrap with other vegetables and condiments.

Even in the small city of Urbino, the kebab is gaining in popularity.

Oriental is located about 100 yards from the central piazza, which is where most of the clothing shops and other eateries are. But a competitive kebab restaurant, L’Angolo del Kebab Greco, opened up closer to the piazza just three years ago. L’Angolo is considered more of a local kebab shop where older people tend to go during the day, and stray club goers during the wee hours of the morning.

“It’s my favorite place to go after visiting the Bosom Pub.” said Ilaria Canali, a fashion design student at the University of Urbino. “There are always so many people here.”

But because Muslims don’t drink alcohol, the shops don’t offer wine or beer.

“We don’t sell alcohol because of religious beliefs” said Mohamed Ettleb, who’s been working at L’Angelo for a year.

Kalim Jalio, the owner of L’Angolo, is also from Morocco. Since Mohamed and Jalio are both Muslim, they are always making sure that their meat is of good quality and adheres to Muslim standards.

Both order their meat from Germany, which contains 63 kebab factories. Italy only has seven.

But for some Italians, even an official license from Germany or the satisfaction on young people’s faces, is not enough to stop anti-kebab movements from growing.

Shortly after Aygun’s death in 2009, many anti-kebab groups began to surface around Italy. Some of these groups targeted the Muslim community. Local laws have even been passed to ban the selling of ethnic food.

While many groups aim at keeping the Italian cuisine traditional for the tourist, other citizens are worried about the kebab’s nutritional value. Even the science department at the University of Urbino has begun to conduct studies on obesity, possibly linking it back to the oil content in the doner kebab.

However, there is no direct evidence that obesity is linked to kebabs.

Whatever the conflict may be, Mohamed and Jalio have both made a successful home for kebabs in Urbino.

“Everyone comes here,” said Mohamed, “even the police.”


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