If you are staying in the Middle East, you learn it can be hard to pinpoint the origins of things. Everybody claims to have invented hummus, flatbread, and even yogurt. And don’t even try to figure out who invented the kebab. There are different types of Kebab depending on which country you are staying in. In Iraq, Kebab refers to ground meat on skewers. Meat chunks on skewers are called Tikka. I love kebabs and tikkas. We occasionally go out for kebab and tikka dinner in Baghdad. I have found the roadside eateries serve tastier kebabs here.
Roasting small chunks of meat is a process dating back to antiquity. Evidence of hominin use of fire and cooking in the Middle East dates back as far as 790,000 years, and prehistoric hearths, earth ovens, and burnt animal bones were spread across Europe and the Middle East by at least 250,000 years ago. Middle Eastern nomads and later soldiers cooked meat over an open fire. Smaller pieces of meat need less fuel than large cuts, so cooking these chunks was practical in an area where wood and even brambles were in limited quantity, this cooking technique was also valuable when the time was also of the essence.
Iraqi cuisine has developed over the course of a long and rich history. Iraqis have a deep appreciation for their own cuisine. I am told that kebabs appear in a book from the southern Iraqi city of Basra called Kitab al-Bukhala (The Book of Misers). It was written by Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Basri (776–869 CE), nicknamed Al-Jahiz. He was a leading literary figure who lived during the early Abbasid era. The miser in this story is a courtly man who invites people to his garden. He tells the guests, “Here’s the stream, and here’s the fire. Catch your fish and make your kebab.”
Persians lay claim on the origin of kebabs. In medieval Persia, kabab denoted chunks of meat that were variously roasted, baked, fried, and stewed. The Persian term “kabab” probably derived from the Aramaic word kabbaba, meaning burning or charring. The term “kabbaba” was used by Babylonian Talmud (3rd to 5th century CE) in discussions of Temple animal offerings that they should not be kabbaba. Some believe that the Persian term kabab was adopted by Arabs and Turks as kebab, and has come to mean different things in different places.
The Iraqi cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes) by Mohammed ibn Al-Hasan Al Baghdadi, written in 1226 CE contained recipes using meatballs called kebab. According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1369 CE), a Moroccan traveller, the kebab was served in the royal houses during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526 CE), and even commoners would enjoy it for breakfast with naan. It was the Turks around the sixteenth century who popularised the usage of kebab to refer to grilled and broiled meat. In the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish term shish (sword/skewer) was attached to kebab and called shish kebab.
Though spit- or skewer-cooked meat dishes are noted in an ancient Indian text, the Mahabharata, and an early 12th-century Sanskrit text Manasollasa (the Delights Of The Mind) composed by the Kalyani Chalukya king Bhulokamalla Someshvara III (reigned 1127–1138 CE). The title Manasollasa (मानसोल्लास) is a compound Sanskrit word, consisting of manas (मनस्) or “mind” and ullasa (उल्लास) or “delight”. The Manasollasa talks about bhaditrakam — a dish made by cutting lamb or goat into small pieces, stringing the pieces on iron skewers and cooking them on hot coals. There is a graphic description of cooking kebabs and the text is South Indian Hindu in origin, which shows no traces of Middle Eastern influences.
The conventional wisdom is that modern-day kebabs travelled from the Middle East and came to the Indian kitchens in the medieval era long before the Mughals ventured in. If the pre-Mughal Kebab was more about marinade and meat-being more of rustic chewy chunks, char-grilled in open ovens, with Mughals it evolved into a delicacy, that was soft and succulent, made richer with aromatic Indian spices and dry fruits.
Whatever the terminology, roasted skewered pieces of meat are ubiquitous from India to Caucasus and Balkans. Many versions call for marinating the meat and also helps keep it moist during grilling. In the end, it doesn’t really matter who invented kebab. What matters is that fire has touched meat, that the meat is good, and the company is even better. At the end, I am citing a poem written by Nabarun Mallik, which I recently read on internet:
In that little shop behind the street,
There is someone wonderful to meet,
And the things he makes; Oh, by God!
Definitely better than rice and sod.
Also called the food of nawabs,
The common name for them is kebabs,
Available in fish, chicken, and mutton,
Eating them, I once burst my button!