Citizens! The Satrap of Sagaciousness – YOUR TFD! – has just embarked upon an 8 day, 4 country, 5 city business trip that will take me back to both the north and south of Germany, where the air is crisp, the people are bundled up and the lines for the country’s favorite street food streams like the mighty Rhine river for blocks in every direction! Not only that, but there is one meal that unites all the countries I am visiting outside the U.S. – Germany, the UK, and Finland. Yea and verily, I speak of nothing less than Germany’s own döner kebab, a fusion of Turkish and German DNA that has resulted in a dish of unmatched savor and acclaim throughout all these countries and elsewhere!
Döner (properly pronounced ‘Dooner’ kebab) is a type of kebab, made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Seasoned meat stacked in the shape of an inverted cone is turned slowly on the rotisserie, next to a vertical cooking element. The outer layer is sliced into thin shavings as it cooks. The vertical rotisserie was invented in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, and döner kebab inspired similar dishes such as the Arab shawarma, Greek gyros, and Mexican al pastor.
The sliced meat of a döner kebab may be served on a plate with various accompaniments, stuffed into a pita or other type of bread as a sandwich, or wrapped in a thin flatbread such as lavash or yufka, known as a dürüm (literally meaning roll or wrap in Turkish). Since the early 1970s, the sandwich or wrap form has become popular around the world as a fast food dish sold by kebab shops, and is often called simply a “kebab”. The sandwich generally contains salad or vegetables, which may include tomato, lettuce, cabbage, onion with sumac, fresh or pickled cucumber, or chili, and various types of sauces.
In the Ottoman Empire, at least as far back as the 17th century, stacks of seasoned sliced meat were cooked on a horizontal rotisserie, similar to the cağ kebab. The vertical rotisserie was introduced no later than the mid-19th century. The town of Bursa, in modern-day Turkey, is often considered the birthplace of the vertically-roasted döner kebab. According to Yavuz İskenderoğlu, his grandfather İskender Efendi as a child in 1850s Bursa had the idea of roasting the lamb at his father’s restaurant vertically rather than horizontally; it was a success, and some years later became known as döner kebap. However, he may have been preceded by Hamdi Usta from Kastamonu around 1830.
It was not until a century later that döner kebab was introduced and popularized in Istanbul, most famously by Beyti Güler. His restaurant, first opened in 1945, was soon discovered by journalists and began serving döner and other kebab dishes to kings, prime ministers, film stars and celebrities. It has been sold in sandwich form in Istanbul since at least the mid-1960s.
The döner kebab, and its derivatives shawarma and gyros, served in a sandwich, came to worldwide prominence in the mid to late 20th century. The first döner kebab shop in London opened in 1966 and they were a familiar sight in provincial cities by the late 1970s, while Greek-style doner kebab, also known as gyros, was already popular in Greece and New York City in 1971.
In Germany, the döner kebab was popularized by Turkish guest workers in Berlin in the early 1970s. The dish developed there from its original form into a distinctive style of sandwich with abundant salad, vegetables, and sauces, sold in large portions at affordable prices, that would soon become one of the top-selling fast food and street food dishes in Germany and much of Europe, and popular around the world.
In the English name “doner kebab”, the word doner is borrowed from the Turkish döner kebap, with the Turkish letter ö usually anglicized as “o”, though “döner kebab” is an alternative spelling in English. The word “kebab” is used, which comes to English from the Arabic: كَبَاب (kabāb), partly through Urdu, Persian and Turkish; it may refer to a number of different kebab dishes made with roasted or grilled meat.
While kebab has been used in English since the late 17th century, doner/döner kebab is known only from the mid-20th or later. The Turkish word döner comes from dönmek (“to turn” or “to rotate”), so the Turkish name döner kebap literally means “rotating roast”. In German, it is spelled Döner Kebab, which can also be spelled Doener Kebab if the ö character is not available; the sandwich is often called ein Döner.
It is in Germany, however that the modern döner kebab truly came into its own. In Germany, the earliest claim to the introduction of Turkish döner kebab dates to 1969, when Bursa native Nevzat Salim and his father started to sell the Iskender Kebap in Reutlingen. However, the Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe (ATDID) connects the wide popularization of the dish to the stand of Turkish guest worker Kadir Nurman at West Berlin’s Zoo Station in 1972, which helped establish the döner kebab sandwich as a fast food option. While the claims of multiple persons to have ‘invented’ the döner may be hard to prove, the further development of döner kebab is connected to the city of Berlin.
The döner kebap as it was first served in Berlin contained only meat, onions and a bit of salad. Over time, it developed into a dish with abundant salad, vegetables, and a selection of sauces to choose from. Even orders placed in the Turkish language in Berlin will ask for the hot sauce using the German word “scharf”, flagging the hybrid nature of the Berlin style of döner kebap. This variation served with pita bread has influenced the style of döner kebap in Germany and in other nations. A 2007 survey showed that many people consider the döner kebab to be the most characteristic food of Berlin.
Annual sales of döner kebabs in Germany amounted to €2.5 billion in 2010. Tarkan Taşyumruk, president of the Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe (ATDID), provided information in 2010 that, every day, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat is produced in Germany by around 350 firms. At the same ATDID fair, Taşyumruk stated that, “Annual sales in Germany amount to €2.5 billion. That shows we are one of the biggest fast-foods in Germany.” In many cities throughout Germany, döner kebabs are at least as popular as hamburgers or sausages, especially with young people.
In 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany, with yearly sales of €3.5 billion.
Citizens, I scoured the Net looking for an archetypal recipe for this delicious treat, but failed to find any single one that matched my needs and palate. So, I created my own, adapting parts or entire recipes to create my ultimate version. The bread recipe, for example is a superb one that I found on thisisimportant.net, and I have made zero changes to it.
In the USA, gyros and the like are almost always rolled in pita flatbreads. In Turkey and in Germany, a moister ‘pide’ bread with a more yeasty rise is used the sandwiches, they are also not rolled but instead the bread is cut in triangles and filled.The technique to make döner meat properly at home is cribbed from a recipe from the British newspaper The Guardian and the sauces were adapted from a few different sources.
I have of course made my own changes to most of these disparate recipes and they are noted in the text. I am supremely happy with my final version, and I have every confidence you will be as well! You can buy Salat Krönung 7 herbs vinaigrette mix here, and Aleppo chili flakes here.
Citizens, this is one impressive meal and is beloved throughout a far wider swath of the world than you might have ever imagined – please do consider adding this to your culinary repertoire with the greatest alacrity! 😀
Battle on – the Generalissimo