Turkish ‘İskender’ Kebab Is the King of Kebabs

Learn all about this great dish, plus easy ways you can make it at home

iskender kebab
'İskender' kebab is made of crispy slivers of roasted lamb over a bed of soft flat bread topped with plain yogurt, tomato sauce and melted butter. didem-akbay_Getty Images

If you’re a meat-lover, you already know that Turkish cuisine is world-renowned for its grilled meats and kebab dishes. In fact, shish kebab and all other kinds of kebab were introduced to the world by the Turkic peoples migrating westward from their home in central Asia centuries ago.

10 Best Turkish Kebabs

If you’re interested in learning about Turkish kebab culture, the best place to start is in northwestern Turkey near the city of Bursa, about two hours south of Istanbul.

Bursa is the birthplace of "İskender" kebab, the king of Turkish kebabs.

It was also home to its inventor, İskender Efendi, who made the dish famous several generations ago during the late 19th century.

The dish has become so popular that today, the name "İskender Kebab" and "Bursa Kebab" are used by many restaurants and chefs throughout Turkey. If you want the original, the İskenderoğlu family, who are the descendants of İskender Efendi, still run a single restaurant in Bursa where people come to eat this famous kebab dish from all over the country.

What Is ‘İskender’ Kebab?

"İskender" kebab is made with two main components. The first is tasty, tender, crispy slivers of vertically roasted lamb, better known as "döner," or "turning" kebab. "Döner" is actually a popular Turkish street food, but when it’s done right like it’s done in Bursa, there’s nothing like it.

Chunks of high-quality lamb and fat are spiced and salted,  then packed together on a spit that is hung vertically next to a coal fire.

As the cylinder of lamb rotates past the coals, the outer layer sizzles to become brown and crispy.

The chef waits ready with a giant knife to cut off thin slivers of the cooked meat. It’s these flavorful strips that are a key ingredient in ‘İskender’ kebab.

The next important component is a single portion sized loaf of soft, flat bread called ​"pide" (pee-DEH’).

"Pide" is a leavened bread that is shaped with the fingers to make round or oval loaves. The crust is very soft and the inside is moist and spongy, perfect for sopping up the meat juices, sauce, and butter to come. 

How Traditional ‘İskender’ Kebab Is Prepared

To make classic ‘İskender’ kebab, a freshly-baked ‘pide’ bread is cut into strips and arranged on a plate. Next, a mound of hot, crispy lamb strips cut from the ‘turning’ kebab is arranged on top of the bread.

Sometimes the chef will also add a small, tube-shaped meatball similar to "Urfa" kebab on the top as a bonus. Then, plain yogurt that’s been whipped to a creamy texture is spooned on top.

The dish is topped off with loads of sauce made from freshly ground tomatoes cooked in butter. Just before serving, another dose of melted butter is drizzled over the top for good measure right at the table.

How To Make ‘İskender’ At Home

There are many ways you can imitate this classic Turkish kebab recipe at home. The easiest way is to find a local Turkish restaurant or cafe that sells "döner," or turning kebab. Buy several servings and take it home to use in your recipe. If it seems dry while you reheat it, don’t be afraid to add some butter.

You can also buy a lamb roast, put it on a spit and rotate it over your grill. As the outside layer gets brown and crispy, slice it off and continue to rotate the meat until all is cooked. Make sure you salt the meat as it cooks.

For the bread, you can use loaves of flat bread or pita bread sold in the bakery section of your supermarket. Warm them in the oven, then cut them into bite-sized squares.

Arrange them on a plate and cover them with the hot lamb strips. Use full-fat plain yogurt on top that’s been whipped with a wire whisk.

For the sauce, grate some ripe tomatoes and cook them for a few minutes in a small skillet with 2 tablespoons of butter and ½ teaspoon of salt. 

Drizzle the hot tomato sauce over the yogurt. Then pour more melted butter over the top.

It may not be exactly like İskender Efendi originally made "İskender" kebab back in the 1800s, but it will give you the chance to sample this Turkish classic.