It’s the food on everyone’s lips when they arrive to Turkish shores – kebabs, kebabs, kebabs.

You dream of how good it’s going to be straight from the source. You order a kebab at the first restaurant you see, wiping a trickle of salvia that escapes the corner of your mouth. The big moment arrives. You’re excited. And suddenly, as you look down at your order, you’re confronted with a perplexing problem: what the hell is that floppy, skinny-arse wrap on my plate?

A real Turkish kebab is nothing like the westernised version, where you select to stuff your kebab till it’s bursting with salads and sauces. You end up with half a kilo of shaved meat, sauce running down your fingers and a bellyache from overeating. When it comes to a true Turkish kebab, it’s about less, not more.

The Turkish kebab is simple and understated. The flavour lies in the roasted meats – salad is used for a hint of colour only, and maybe you’ll get a few fries for fun. The biggest decision you’ll face is whether to have it with or without cheese (say karşali for cheese!). Despite the overflowing sacks that fill the spice bazaars, Turkish food is simply flavoured. In kebabs’ case, it’s usually red flakes of dried, chopped peppers – or nothing at all. Wrap it all up, and you’ve got yourself a tasty meal.

Inevitably, you go for more.

Cocky with your local knowledge of the Turkish kebab, you order like a pro. But they thwart you again. You look at your order and you’re back at square one: what the hell is that on my plate?

Because there’s more than one way to wrap a kebab, baby. Do you want your meat shaved, skewered or minced? Bread loaf or bread wrap? On top or in between the bread? Or smothered in yoghurt, melted butter and tomato sauce? The choices, agh!

So how do you know what to order? It’s all in the name.

To just order a ‘kebab’, you’ll probably get chunks of meat roasted on a skewer and served on an open piece of bread (defined as şiş kebab). Then again, if you happen to be sitting in a restaurant that has a neon sign flashing ‘Adana kebab’ or ‘Urfa kebab’, then you’ll be getting a log of minced meat instead, with a touch of spicy flavour..

The döner kebab is the most affiliated with foreigners. You’ve seen the giant rotisserie meats in cities worldwide, where men wield long, flexible knives and carve thin strips of meat. The only difference in Turkey is that you’ll see one every few metres. And the meat carver will probably be stubbing out a cigarette as he prepares your order.

Sounds simple enough? Even döner kebabs come in different forms. It’ll be stuffed into a bread role unless you specify you want it wrapped in thin sheets of bread. For that you need to order a ‘dürüm’.

Once you’ve mastered the döner basics, you’ll be ready for the iskender kebab. Strips of döner meat are thrown on top special Turkish bread and smothered in tomato sauce. I mean, it’s drowning in the stuff, alongside a dollop of yoghurt and a touch of melted butter – or a lot as some locals like it!

And you can be sure it’s fresh – everyone else is eating them too. And there’s a hell of a lot of people in Istanbul to feed.

Beyond the kebab basics, the list goes on. But for that, you’d better plan another trip. It’s a long list.

posts by Casey