The Kebab Gospel: A Snarky Ex-Mormon's Word on London Kebabs
If you’re ever a Mormon missionary, go to London for the food.
I know what you’re thinking: “Said nobody, ever.” I know what else you’re thinking: “Aren’t Mormon missionaries given their assignments? As in, they’ve got no choice in the matter at all?” But I’m bearing my testimony here, the food in London is incredible! There’s a chippie in North Finchley—“chippie” is slang for “fish and chips shop”—that will change your eternal life… And curry. You wouldn’t believe the Indian curry: foodies swear-not-swear, up and down, in heaven and on earth, that London curry is better even than India...better than the curry of the Celestial Kingdom!
My only caveat? Don’t look for Mexican food. It’s a sin. And trust me, you’ll never find it anyway. London is Outer Darkness for all Mexican food.
So I’ll say this one more time: if you’re ever a Mormon missionary, go to London for the food.
To prove it, I’ll tell you a story. Well, several stories. And while these stories are what me and my fellow Mormon missionaries might have called “faith promoting lies”—you know, the kind of stories that serve as confirmation but are really nothing more than nice, nourishing, and entrancing anecdotal evidence—I still think you’ll find them useful, whether they’re exactly true or not. Because let’s be honest: what’s true isn’t always faith-promoting…
The principle is simply this: you don’t need to take this one on faith. Lemme start my story. And it came to pass…
I was a missionary—back in 2001 through 2003—“Elder” Kulisch for the England London Mission, reporting for duty. I had my “little pocket protector with [my] name engraved,” as the poet, DA Powell, would say. Just after my 19th birthday, with maybe three weeks left in high school, my parents and siblings gathered round our little wooden kitchen table and opened up my “Mission Call”—the sort of vernacular nickname for the stuffed envelope you get from Church Headquarters assigning you your two-year mission.
And when I read it aloud? That little two-page letter? The one that little Mormon boys and little Mormon girls—the girls are a year less “little,” allowed only to apply at 19 (instead of 18) to give them an extra year to get married off—treat like tender Mormon Scripture, tendered to them individually, as if it is personal revelation? That “Call”? My “Call”?
It made my mum start crying…
And here’s the second reason you shouldn’t take my story on faith. Because not two months before this little gathering, “Elder” Kulisch confessed his gayness to his Mormon parents, his Mormon siblings, his Mormon leaders, and pretty much all his Mormon friends—not six months before his little mission. But also because “Elder” Kulisch would (years after his mission) take his gay-ass out of Mormonism for good—at the ripe old age of 27. You’re talking to a GAY EX-Mormon now—with all the benefit of hindsight and a lot of snark—and while “gay” certainly recommends me under stereotypes for offering up stellar food advice, it doesn’t do much for me on issues of faith or obedience.
Which is probably—given my mother’s uncanny knack for understanding the present and its particular defining scarp on the future—why my “Mission Call” made my mum start crying…
You see, London was full of temptation—not food—according to my family. Chock full. And well-intended though they were, my family was nearly as clueless as me on the issue of the gay temptations of the day. So what exactly was my Mormonism? My Mormonism was pre-“gay marriage” Mormonism, pre-Prop 8, pre-Obama. Heck, my Mormonism was barely pre-September 11th. And my family, well-intended though they were, had no resources and no help beyond a few kindly, ecclesiastically-trained white men in Mormon leadership positions. And while Mormonism would eventually (presumably) raise the bar on those resources in the coming years, then, at 19, London did look like a veritable nest of vipers.
My mum was, I suppose, not without reason to wonder... I certainly liked football players—real ones, mind the gap, thanks, not those silly American Football players. (Mmm, soccer calves.) And I certainly liked British accents, too, relishing the lilting musicality of Elijah Wood’s passable British accent in the trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring about as much as my friends relished taking the mick out of me for being unable to see it. (Missionaries are not allowed to see movies, read books, or really participate in regular culture.) In truth, maybe my mum was right to be crying.
And, yes, knocking on doors for ten hours a day did not seem like fun to me. Especially when insanely depressed that my family really didn’t want me to be gay.
Ironically, my salvation was the food. Because when you’re a gay Mormon missionary, in London, England, forced back in the closet by your own willpower, you go to London for the comfort of food. Mushy peas. Fried fish. Strawberry trifles and thick, rich Bird’s custard. Crisp, golden-oiled potato chunks—chips, not quite our “fries”—dressed in salt and malt vinegar, and wrapped into traveling cones of butcher paper, each portion complete with its own little wooden chip fork.
And, of course, at the apex? The height of heavenly London food aspirations: the chicken kebab. The chicken kebab is the ultimate referent. This is the Urim and Thummim to predict a good day of proselytizing. The iron rod. The CTR of food choices. The word of wisdom. The best end to endure to after “Fast and Testimony Meeting.” Cheerios in church. And canceled early-morning Seminary. What they really mean when they say, “Sustaining your leaders.” The army of Helaman to your soul. The Liahona. The one thing the Veil of Forgetfulness could never make you forget. What should top the list of effective strategies in the missionary handbook. Popcorn on the apricot tree. God’s gift to missionaries. Put plainly, perfection, the chicken kebab is the only thing that made the whole darn mission worth it…
For the investigator, kebabs are a Middle Eastern staple referring to seasoned meat—usually lamb, though sometimes beef or chicken—cooked on a vertical rotisserie, sliced into crisp, thin shavings and wrapped in flatbread such as naan or pita. Kebabs are usually served with tomato, onion and sumac, perhaps pickled cucumber; in the fast-food joints of Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, throughout Europe, even in Canada or Australia, kebabs are also usually served with chili-spiced sauces and mint-garlic sauces.
Döner refers specifically to the Turkish for “rotating roast” or “turn around,” which was basically the extent of my missionary language training. You’re probably familiar with gyros already, the Greek variety of the kebab.
Missionaries don’t do ecstasy—a fact that may surprise you, if you’ve seen them smile—they do kebabs.
In the UK, it’s fair to say that the kebab made its entry with Shahi Nan Kebab, a small family-owned shack shop on the bridge opposite the Southall train station in Greater London. They’ve been open since 1969, and, now, apparently, own four additional locations in Southall alone. According to Feed the Lion, the righteously unapologetic foodie meat blog, says two things make the Shahi Nan chicken kebab the very mana referred to in Exodus that the Lord send Israel from Heaven: tandoori naan and chili sauce. Most London kebabs use pita bread while Shahi Nan Kebab bakes fresh naan in-house and properly spiced in a traditional tandoor oven (a cylindrical clay oven lit by charcoal or wood). The chili sauce builds on this rock, according to Feed the Lion, and the naan and kebab is “brought alive by the sauce.” The blog says, “It’s the best naan kebab in the business…The rest of the menu should be avoided like the plague.”
Southall, where Shahi Nan Kebab is located, is London’s “most authentic ‘Little India,’” according to a 2006 New York Times article by Alan Rappeport. Says Rappeport: “A patchwork of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Afghans pack the streets of a community that settled here 50 years ago, when a British businessman hired large numbers of Punjabi Sikhs to work in his rubber factory.” The suburb is 10 miles west of Central London, nestled near Hayes. Food was a definite draw for Rappeport, who claims “the variety of food is a journey in itself.”
Of course, as a missionary and one of the only white folk walking the streets of Southall, I happily chewed my kebab as I eschewed the world—being in it and not of it—and so never entered the many Sikh and Hindu temples, mosques and non-Mormon churches of the neighborhood. Yet I could still echo The New York Times: “People of many faiths live, work and pray in close quarters [here]…This area is welcoming.”
I needed those kebabs, probably more than I care to admit: the clean crunch of cucumber and garlicky mint, the succulent flavor of the chicken bathed in chili spice, and the copious grease. They did more than assuage depression. Bite-by-bite they expanded my world.
Gluttony is the only sin we don’t seem to bother condemning anymore. Perhaps because we don’t understand it. Perhaps because its wider symbolic application is potentially damning to our whole Western way of life—and thus easier to gently avoid. (Like drinking Pepsi.) A few odd and unscientific prohibitions aside (coffee, tea, red wine), Mormon culture is the epitome of Western desire and consumption on food as they are on everything else: health is hardly the guide, so much as the individual preference for comfort, convenience, taste, and control. The funniest part, to me, is how the Mormon feels this separates him: how principle, even poorly applied, can be such a great and terrible source of pride, of even sacrament. I marvel at this overwhelming certainty, this almost casual arrogance: I have seen faces transfigured by it.
One usually ends these sorts of things with witnesses and testimonies and in-the-name-of-jesus-christ-amen’s. Sorry, but I got nothing.
Except for maybe this. If I have any commandment left to deliver or mission call left to give you, I'd say go to London and order yourself a chicken kebab on naan at Shahi Nan Kebab with extra chili sauce. And if you’re unsure of my sources, pray about it.
Matthew D. Kulisch