While on a recent college visit with some students from the US, the topic of German food came up. We’d already experienced many culinary delicacies on our way, and they wanted to know what my favorite was. One mainstay came quickly to mind: Döner Kebab. This got quite a few skeptical looks. “Isn’t that Turkish?” one of the students asked. Yes and no, I said, and the explanation says a lot about modern Germany.
Today, there are more than 17,000 Dönerladen across Germany, more than McDonalds and Burger King location combined, with 3 billion in yearly revenues spread across the lot. Although the Kebab stand has become a common sight across many country throughout the world, and the Döner itself has deep roots in Turkish and Ottoman culinary history, the modern flatbread/meat-shavings combo has its genesis here in Germany. While there is some doubt as to the actual author of the Döner, there’s no question that it burst onto the scene in Berlin in the early 1970s and took the world by storm from there.
Berlin today hosts over 1000 Döner purveyors, and has become inextricably linked with the late night treat. Having spent some 3 months of my life there, I can definitely attest to the superior quality of the Berlin variety. The sauces are tangier, the bread is crispier, and the meat practically melts in your mouth. Whether its a late night bite or a mid-day snack, there is no better option for a meal on the go, and millions of Döners are enjoyed by Berliners every year.
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, this kind of widespread popularity was unimaginable for the nascent Turkish restaurant industry. In order to make the traditional Turkish Döner Kebab more palatable to German tastes, a few enterprising owners tried out a new offering combining the meat of the Kebab with salad and tzatziki in a flatbread pocket. This was a widely successful effort, even if all they did was make a sandwich.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a Germany without a local Döner stand on every corner in every city, town and village. And that’s why, even though it has Turkish roots, it’s still my favorite German food today.