Unilever R&D tie-up develops vegan döner kebab that cooks vertically, mimics ‘shaving and grilling behaviour’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

The well-loved döner kebab is made from meat stacked on a vertical skewer, which turns slowly on a rotisserie, before being sliced and served with accompaniments. Image source: Unilever
The well-loved döner kebab is made from meat stacked on a vertical skewer, which turns slowly on a rotisserie, before being sliced and served with accompaniments. Image source: Unilever

Related tags Unilever Kebab plant-based The Vegetarian Butcher

Unilever-owned The Vegetarian Butcher has partnered with döner producer The Düzgün Group to reinvent the traditional döner kebab with plant-based ingredients.

The döner kebab is through to have first been served up in Istanbul, Türkiye, last century. But today, the dish – made from meat stacked on a vertical skewer, which turns slowly on a rotisserie, before being sliced and served with accompaniments – is well loved in Germany.

According to a recent YouGov poll commissioned by German news agency dpa, the döner has overtaken currywurst as Germany’s most popular street food.

At the same time, Germany is considered the most important market for plant-based food in Europe in sales value terms. Germany is also the country with the highest share of plant-based eaters and an impressive share of flexitarians, according to food system change non-profit ProVeg International.

A new partnership between Unilever-owned plant-based brand The Vegetarian Butcher and döner producer The Düzgün Group has sought to meet demand for both plant-based food and the popular meat dish with a vegan alternative they claim can be handled in ‘exactly’ the same way as its conventional counterpart.

Recreating a ‘unique product with a long tradition’

The challenge is that kebab meat is cooked differently to almost all other meats in foodservice. Instead of being sizzled in a pan or roasted in the oven, the meat pieces are stacked vertically upon each other, and held together by a skewer.

This allows fat to drop off the spit-roast, which in turn fuels the flames of the fire, and singes and flavours the meat. By rotating the skewer, heat is evenly distributed and the outer layers of meat cooked in a ‘tasty basting of fat’, explained Unilever. “This leaves it ready to be sliced off and served with condiments and breads of the consumer’s choice.”

Teaming up with The Düzgün Group, the duo sought to replicate this experience with plant-based ingredients. “The development was an exciting challenge: döner kebab is a unique product with a long tradition,” ​said Bart van de Ree, R&D developer at The Vegetarian Butcher.

“The joint development allowed us to understand and then mimic all the culinary aspects of the kebab: the flavour, the texture, the slicing and shaving as well as the grilling behaviour.”

Getting the ingredients right is also key to the overall organoleptic profile. “The plant-based kebab is made from soy, plant-based fats, herbs, spices and some natural flavours,” ​a Unilever spokesperson told FoodNavigator.

Asked specifically about the fat element, which plays a dominant role in conventional kebab cooking, the spokesperson explained the kebab uses vegetable fats, with one example being rapeseed oil. These fats give the plant-based kebab the ‘same appearance, look, juiciness and taste as an animal meat kebab’, we were told.

Spotlight on flavour, texture, slicing and cooking behaviour

The partners used their ‘combined expertise’ to work on potential pain points, ranging from flavourings to texture, slicing and shaving ability, and cooking and grilling.

From a flavour perspective, the plant-based kebab is designed to taste like an animal meat kebab. But there can be differences between the flavour profile of animal and plant-based meat alternatives, depending on the animal used by the operator, explained the partners.

“We added a lot of flavours and spices, such as traditional cumin, oregano, garlic, and onion to get the authentic meat kebab taste using a plant-based recipe.”

Creating the right texture, notably one that allows for the traditional döner kebab shape and slicing ability, is reliant on using soy proteins and ‘several binding ingredients’. And leveraging a ‘blend of fats’ with different melting characteristics helps make sure the plant-based meat is ‘perfectly browned’ and ready to be sliced, while remaining juicy, noted the partners.

“Most plant-based kebabs currently in the market are either pre-cut in a convenient format or require additional cooking after being cut from the skewer. What’s unique about our plant-based skewer is that it behaves and can be handled like animal meat.

“It is made to be grilled on the skewer just like an animal kebab would, with the same speed of cooking and browning.”

Commercialisation plans

Unilever and The Düzgün Group are launching the plant-based kebab – which is also halal-certified and lactose-free – into foodservice this month for German and European consumers.

Europeans outside of Germany also enjoy the dish, with an estimated 400 tonnes produced daily – predominantly exported from Germany.

Whereas in Germany you’re most likely to find kebabs accompanied with tomato, cabbage, onion and dill-yogurt sauce, in the UK it is often served hot curry sauce, in Italy with a hot pepper relish, tzatziki and harissa, and in France with French fries.

The goal is to deliver plant-based meat skewers at scale and ultimately, ‘take plant-based kebabs mainstream’.

“The plant-based kebab is a great extension of our existing product range. It is not an alternative but rather a stand-alone addition to our range,” ​said Fevzi Düzgün, CEO of The Düzgün Group, which supplies skewers to döner chains, shops and restaurants.

“We can deliver on a large scale and hence we are perfectly set up to offer restaurateurs an international supply chain for plant-based skewers,”​ added Blue Yildizbakan, project leader at The Düzgün Group.

Importantly, kitchen teams don’t need extra equipment to serve the plant-based offering. The skewer fits ‘seamlessly’ with their equipment and cooking producers, explained Hugo Verkuil, CEO of The Vegetarian Butcher.

“Hacking meat icons like the döner kebab with plant-based equivalents is what it is all about for us. We are targeting meat-lovers – from vegans to carnivores – who don’t want to miss out. And when it comes to guests, we are convinced people will not be able to taste the difference.”

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