To British ears, the words “doner kebab” drip with unappealing connotations: dubious meat, dodgy food standards and decisions taken under the influence. Every Friday night in towns and cities across Britain, neon trapeziums lure drunken men to gorge on greasy meat shaved from an elephant’s leg. Here, the doner is usually eaten in consolation for a night out that has not gone as well as one hoped. It is a shameful thing, consumed in darkness. Nobody need know.
In Germany, the doner’s homeland, things could hardly be more different. Here the snack is a source of pride. Germans eat their doners in broad daylight and hold sophisticated views on their favourite outlets, much like Brits and their curry houses. The lunchtime queue at Mustafa Gemüse Kebab in Berlin (above) is 45 minutes long. The doner has outsold traditional favourites like the Bratwurst to become Germany’s favourite fast food. According to the Association of Turkish Doner Producers in Europe, 2m are sold in Germany each day from 40,000 outlets.
While the sandwich was born of aristocratic decadence – a way of feeding the eponymous Earl at the card table – the doner kebab was an entrepreneurial by-product of the Wirtschaftwunder, the West German economic boom. The snack as we know it originated in Berlin in the 1970s, when Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers) realised that busy office workers needed to eat their lunch on the go. Until then, Turkish kebabs had been served on a plate: the Brainwave of Berlin was to serve them in a portable flatbread. The word doner comes from the Turkish dondurmek, to turn or rotate. Though the vertical rotisserie was an Ottoman invention, it is tempting to imagine that a little German Vorsprung durch Technik may have assisted in the development of the automatic version.
Who exactly invented the doner is much contested. Was it Kadir Nurman at his Imbiss (food stand) at Zoo station in 1972? Some say he merely popularised a dish pioneered by Mahmut Aygun at Hasir, a Kreuzberg restaurant, a year earlier. No, say others: the honour properly belongs to Nevsat Salim, whose Eureka moment occurred in the Swabian town of Reutlingen in 1969. And on it goes. Whoever first realised the doner’s potential, the fierce debate over its origins demonstrates how wholeheartedly the snack has been adopted in Germany. Turkish integration into German society has not always been smooth, but the doner kebab has undoubtedly raised the community’s profile and created a point of contact with others.
In the right hands – that is to say, German-Turkish ones – the doner kebab is a nutritious and satisfying snack that bursts with flavour. All four elements of the dish need to be perfect if the doner is to take its rightful place in the culinary pantheon. The meat must be of high quality and layered on the spit, not minced and pressed into a conical slab. The classic Berlin doner is made with veal, but beef and chicken are also popular. At Imren, a fabled Neukölln institution, the beef is marinated in milk before grilling. Bread should be a durum flatbread, and toasted until crispy on the outside to prevent soggy disintegration. Sauces – garlic, yoghurt or hot (Scharf) – must be home-made and not a bit sweet. Their purpose is to complement rather than overpower. As for salad, fresh lettuce and tomato will suffice. Ditch the red cabbage and raw onion for a handful of fresh herbs. Yes, you read that right: herbs. Gel Gör on Kotbusser Damm serves its doners with parsley, mint and coriander. You won’t get that on a Friday night in Britain.