How the Döner kebab consumed Germany
Döner kebab, how do we love thee? Few things so clearly demonstrate the impact of Turkish culture on German cuisine than how emphatically the once-foreign Döner has assumed the status of a national dish. We dive into the origins and history of this beloved Turkish snack to see how it went from being a humble workman’s sandwich to a world-famous, fast-food staple.
The origins of the döner kebab
The origins of the döner kebab go back centuries. As any Turkish-speaking person could tell you, the name “döner kebab” is derived from the Turkish words dönmek (to turn or rotate) and kebap (roasted meat), giving the literal meaning “rotating roast”.
At least as far back as the 17th century, people in the Ottoman Empire would cook stacks of seasoned and sliced meat on a horizontal rotisserie. Sometime around the mid-19th century, a wily cook noticed that, when the meat was spitted horizontally, the fat dripped into the fire, causing the flames to rise up. By turning it vertically, the fat ran down the meat instead.
This served the twin purpose of ensuring that more of the delicious meaty flavour was retained, as well as keeping the flames in check. The earliest known photo of such a vertical meatsicle was taken in 1855 by British photographer James Robertson.
Image: James Robertson, 1855 (public domain)
It took another century for the vertical rotating kebab to arrive in Istanbul, where it was most famously popularised by Beyti Güler. From 1945, Güler’s restaurant served döner and other kebab dishes to kings, prime ministers and other celebrities. These original döner kebabs were typically served on a plate with rice and some vegetable accompaniments.
From sandwich to staple: A brief history of the döner
The first döner kebab in a sandwich form is said to have appeared in Istanbul in the mid-1960s, but it was in Germany in the 1970s that it was developed into the distinctive Döner that we know and love today - a sandwich of salad, roasted vegetables and sauces topped with thinly-sliced meat.
Like so many great creations, the Döner was born of world upheaval and cross-cultural exchange. As the German economy catapulted itself from the ashes of World War II - the Wirtschaftswunder of the 1960s - it found itself in dire need of labourers. Tens of thousands of Turks were therefore invited to come to the country as guest workers (Gastarbeiter) to help drive Germany’s postwar recovery.
But when the economy began to sour in the 1970s, many workers who had lost their jobs found themselves in dire need of a new way to make ends meet, for some the solution to unemployment was found in kebab shops. The story goes that Turkish immigrants living in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin came up with the idea of doing away with the rice and the plate, and instead creating a delicious dish that could be directly eaten “auf die Hand” by busy workers on the go - and thus der Döner was born.
The Döner Daddy: Who invented the döner kebab?
Exactly who can be credited with this burst of culinary inspiration is, however, up for debate. Prime candidates are Mehmet Aygün and Kadir Nurman who, in 1971 and 1972 respectively, began serving up their own hot pockets of deliciousness.
But even their claims to fame are disputed - as many critics point out, it’s not as if no one in the Middle East had ever heard of a sandwich before 1971. The waters are muddied further by one suggestion that the first döner kebab shop in London opened as early as 1966. Another Turk, Nevzat Salim, also claims to have sold the first Döner, this time in the city of Reutlingen in Baden-Württemberg, in 1969.
Whoever came up with the idea - if indeed, anyone can really claim to have “invented” a sandwich - what can be claimed by actors in Germany in the 1970s is a helping hand in the meteoric rise in the Döner’s popularity.
To infinity and beyond
Juicy, salty, spicy, creamy and crunchy in equal measure, the sandwich kebab was an instant hit among workers, students and immigrants looking for an unpretentious meal with bags of flavour. By the late 1970s, döner kebab shops had spread across the world and the rest, as they say, is history. Nowadays, even your average one-horse town probably has a kebab eatery.
There are now more than 16.000 Döner shops in Germany, part of an industry that employs 200.000 people across Europe and rakes in an incredible 3,5 billion euros each year. Kebab shops in the federal republic churn out a whopping 2 million sandwiches per day, the equivalent of around 660 tonnes of meat.
Bonding over a sandwich
But beyond that, the Döner is so much more than a sandwich. It is frequently pointed to as a symbol of successful German-Turkish relations, illustrating not only Turkish-German cultural exchange but also Turkish influence on German food culture. That’s a legacy we should all be happy to chow down on.