An expat writes an ode to one of his favourite post-party foods, the doner kebab, and sinks his teeth into discovering its Turkish origins and how it came to Germany.
The indomitable, delicious döner. What would a blog about life in Germany be without it? Ah, but first, I must begin with a heartfelt apology, for in case you hadn’t noticed, I heartlessly slandered the doner kebab last week in order to make a point about cuisine in Berlin. I dared mention it in the same sentence with the far inferior currywurst. Yes – today, I take it all back. This is my ‘Ode an den Döner‘…
Where I live, we don’t eat the doner, we brush our teeth with it (the term dönerbürste, or doner-brush, has been bandied about in certain circles). Four out of five dentists do not recommend it, but I personally brush my teeth with doner about as often as I actually floss. Doctors don’t recommend them either; a BBC study found that the average doner in England had around 1,200 calories (if you consider the 5–10 beers you drank beforehand, your lookin’ at 2 grand or more).
A loyal friend
You must also often brave less-than-sanitary conditions if you’re keen on finding the best doner in town; ‘the dirtier the better’ is a pretty solid rule here. If you’re not just a little bit nervous on your way there, you’re probably going to be disappointed. There is also no edible item that I have eaten more of between the hours of 3am and 7am. The doner is a loyal friend of sorts; its flavours and spices will accompany you wherever you may go, for many hours after eating. Don’t think that a real tooth-brushing will save you, either. Despite all of these things, I continue to thoroughly enjoy and love the doner, and this keyed my interest in finding out just how a food with Turkish roots has ironically become one of the most iconic symbols of German cuisine.
The roots of the doner kebab
The doner gets its name from the Turkish word for ‘to turn around’. Although its history begins on the shores of the Sea of Marmara in north-western Turkey, its true glory and worldwide fame wasn’t realised until it travelled along with the Turkish gastarbeiter (literally ‘guest workers’) of the 1960s all the way to the German capital. Only there did it assume its current form as a sandwich, along with that wonderful mix of salat komplett (or ohne zwiebeln if that’s how you roll) that we all know and love.
So we first trace the roots of the doner back to the the very brief capital city of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa (capital from 1326–1365). It’s a city whose past glory as the centre of a powerful empire – at least for 35 odd years – is today unknown to most. Its reputation certainly suffered from lying directly across the pond from its much bigger brother, Istanbul (or Constantinople, if that’s how you roll).
Likewise, its importance as the prime mover in the development of today’s doner kebab has gone largely ignored. I took a journey in 2009 that began in Istanbul. I crossed the Marmara Sea, and set off toward Bursa on a mission to find the original doner (also, I had a day to kill on my Turkey trip and Bursa happened to be a quick and convenient ferry ride away, but this doesn’t take away from how happy-as-a-clam I was when I found out the original döner laden was where I had randomly decided to go).
After touring some of the fascinating original medieval villages on the outskirts of the city, my Couchsurfing host guided me to Iskender Kebab, the place where it all began. Yavuz İskenderoğlu, who lived during the latter half of the 19th century, was the first man to take the proverbial kebab-bull by the horns – he deliberately and confidently turned what was previously a horizontal spit, and tilted it precisely 90 degrees. Just like that, the vertical spieß was born.
Iskender kebab, as it’s called today, is lean lamb, should be sliced thinly but widely, and is served on a plate over pieces of unleavened bread and with yoghurt, and if you’re lucky, the server will come around with melted butter and tomato sauce and give you a nice friendly Turkish drizzle. Let me give you a little helpful tip at this point though. When you’re all sated and full of tasty rotated-meat goodness, you’ve finished your iskender and are sipping Şıra, and brainstorming about possibly similar foods you’ve had before that you could compare to iskender kebab, don’t say this: “Hey, this is basically like a Turkish gyro.” Take it from me.
When the kebab came to Germany
We fast forward to the 1960s in Germany, where work was plentiful, but working-aged men were not. Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Moroccans, and of course Turks, came to Germany as gastarbeiter to fill the ranks. The full history of the gastarbeiter is a topic for a different blog, but suffice it to say that – to the chagrin of many a German xenophobe – thousands upon thousands of Turkish men came in large numbers, and their families eventually followed. Somewhere in that mix, some iskender enthusiasts settled down in Berlin and sought to give their fellow Turkish workers a little ‘slice’ of home, but this time a slightly more convenient and portable one. As with many of my favourite legendary food and drink inventions (the Reuben, the Martini, sliced bread, etc.), there is some dispute as to who exactly was the first person to take the bread that iskender was served over, and repurpose it as a vehicle for the turning meat.
One of the main claimants to the ‘Doner Throne’ is now a retiree in Berlin named Kadir Nurman. With his humble stand near Bahnhof Zoo in the early 70s, he was slingin’ doner before it was cool, and it didn’t take long before his Turkish clientele was joined by ze hungry Chermans. Let the controversy begin, though, because in 2009, the very reputable Guardian reported the death of the ‘man who invented the doner’ in 1971, Mahmut Aygun. Perhaps the world will never know who really created the doner.
I like to think it was the multi-cultural soul of the city of Berlin that birthed such a divine drunk food. In the 40 years since, doner kebab spits of wildly varying quality can be found on every street corner on nearly every town in Germany and increasingly Europe-wide. Today, there are well over 1,000 doner shops in Berlin, and over 16,000 in Germany alone.
700m kebabs sold each year
Despite a fair bit of controversy in recent years stemming from questions on the origins of the pressfleisch-type doner meat, the doner continues to be serious business. Over 720 million doner are sold annually in Germany (!), and even Angela Merkel was recently photographed awkwardly trying her hand with a big slicer. There is now an official certificate issued by the ATDiD (Avrupa Türk Döner Imalatçıları Dernegi, or the Union of Turkish Doner Makers in Europe), who despite poor website design are at the very least pretending to regulate the quality of the turning meat. They even have their own annual conference, so it’s gotta be legit, right? I mean, I’m sure at least there’s no horse meat hanging out in there.
Yes indeed, the doner has joined a long line of semi-circular, tasty, practical foods. The Cornish pasty, the calzone, the gyro, the taco – I’d even submit that the semi-circle competes with the beloved cylinder as today’s shape of choice for hand-held food. For all of its faults, the taste and smell of a nearby döner laden will never leave my memory, and I thank Iskender, Nurman, and all of the best shops in Berlin today that I’m still discovering (for me, there’s no comparison thus far to Imren or Mustafas– you’ve gotta check out the latter’s website). But in the end, I’m really no expert. To those of you in Berlin or elsewhere, I’m calling out to you: I want to hear where the best (and the worst) doner is hiding out.