Tradition holds that kebabs were first created in the Middle Ages by Turkish soldiers in the Ottoman Empire who skewered meat on their swords and grilled it over open campfires, but the practice of cooking meat on a stick or skewer likely dates to prehistoric times, possibly as long as a million years ago, when early humans began cooking over fire.
Shish kebab remains a Turkish specialty; shish is the Turkish word for skewer, and kebab comes from the Persian word for grilling. As Muslim influence spread world wide it was accompanied by skewered food. Skashlik is the term used for kebabs in the Caucases and Russia, and satays arrived in Indonesia with Persian traders from India. Greek souvlaki is said to have resulted from the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s and French brochettes, Italian spiedini and Japanese yakitori are further examples of the geographic reach of kebabs. Persian and Moghul influence is evident in the kebabs of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in the tikkas of India. (According to the Oxford Companion to Food, chicken tikka masala, an Anglo Indian kebab dish served with a mildly spiced, creamy tomato-based sauce, has become so popular in Britain that it qualifies as a national dish. Legend suggests it was created by a Bangladeshi cook who responded to a diner’s request for “gravy” with his tandoori chicken by spicing up a can of creamed tomato soup.)
In Turkey not every kebab is skewered. Ground meat is sometimes pressed around a skewer and grilled (keftka kebabs), and sometimes it is formed into burger-like patties and cooked directly on a grill, baked in an oven or combined in a stew. Doner kebab, literally “rotating kebab” in Turkish, is thinly sliced lamb, beef or chicken, tightly packed and slowly roasted on a vertical rotating spit. Middle Eastern shawarma, Mexican tacos al pastor and Greek gyros all are derived from the Turkish doner kebab. Mutton is the traditional kebab meat but, depending on local preferences and religious prohibitions, other meats used globally may include beef, chicken, goat, fish, pork or shrimp.
While in the West vegetables (tomatoes,mushrooms, bell peppers, onions) are often interspersed with meat in kebabs, some experts argue that vegetables should be skewered separately to accommodate different cooking times and assure that the meat is properly seared.