Istanbul Bayramoglu Skewer Cutting

The Döner Kebap

a brief history of Berlin's most famous dish

Oct 8th, 2020

The very first thing I ate when I set foot in Berlin for the first time in the early 2000s was a Döner Kebap, and the first bite of that sandwich was a life changing experience that will stay with me forever. Despite the fact that my meal seemed to disintegrate in my hands, the combination of the crunchy bread, the fatty meat, the crisp vegetables and the glossy sauce dripping down my hand expanded my food horizon forever. I became obsessed with Döner Kebap, an obsession that was at least partially responsible for my permanent relocation to Berlin, and since then has taken me to the most obscure corners of the city (and the rest of the world) in search of Döner greatness. Over the course of the last decade, I’ve devoured hundreds of different Döners of all imaginable shapes and variations. The more I immersed myself in the topic, the more I realized how important a basic, historical understanding of the dish is in order to truly appreciate it (you’ll find list of my favourite Döner Kebaps in Berlin HERE).

“…the combination of the crunchy bread, the fatty meat, the crisp vegetables and the glossy sauce dripping down my hand expanded my food horizon forever”

“Döner” means “rotation” in Turkish (another word for that is çevirme, which is Turkish for “turning,” and the origin of the Arabic word “Shawarma”), and Döner Kebap refers to the practice of grilling meat that has been stacked on a skewer on a vertically rotating rotisserie grill. Originally, in the Ottoman Empire, rotisserie grilling was practiced horizontally over hot coals, a method that still exists and goes by the name of Cağ kebabı. There is written documentation that a person by the name of Hamdi Usta in Kastemonu tilted the kebap vertically in 1835, thus inventing the Döner Kebap. Around a decade later, İskender Efendi from Bursa seems to have had the exact same idea independently, and to this day, the Iskender Kebap from Bursa is a world-famous variation of the dish.

Döner Kebap Painting (Ottoman Empire 1850)
The first photograph of a Döner Kebap (James Robertson, 1855)

The deeds of Hamdi Usta and Iskender are undeniable and commonly accepted, but when it comes to the question of who had the brilliant idea of serving Döner meat in a piece of bread (and hence turning it into a portable street food) instead of serving it on a plate with sides of rice, flatbread and vegetables, the answer is way less clear. If you believe the official story of the Turkish Association of Döner Manufacturers in Europe (ATDID), which has been the most quoted story in German media throughout the last decades, the “Döner im Brot” was invented in Berlin by Kadir Nurman in 1972 in his shop close to Zoologischer Garten. Nurman, sadly enough, passed away in 2013, and since his shop hasn’t been around since 2003, we can’t ask him.

As with every origin story of a famous dish, there are of course multiple, conflicting stories.

Mehmet Aygün, the patriarch of the Hasir empire, claims he invented the Döner im Brot on the Oranienstraße in 1971. Others with the same claim include Ibrahim Keyif (Schöneberg, 1969), Ahmet Yeter (1973), Kör Bilal (Kreuzberg, 1971) and Nevzat Salim (Reutlingen, 1969)*. All of these alleged inventors have one thing in common: There is little or no evidence that supports their claims and, if you look at the big picture, also nothing that really supports the idea that someone invented anything like the Döner 2,000 km away from Turkey in a country called Germany.

Istanbul Bayramoglu Skewer
A Yaprak Beef Skewer in the making at legendary Istanbul kebap restaurant Bayramoğlu

My countless conversations and interviews with Döner Ustas (masters), experts and chefs in Turkey, along with my extensive research on published work on the topic tend to support the theory that Eberhard Seidel-Pielen proposed in his book “Aufgespießt”: the “Döner im Brot” was most likely first served in Istanbul sometime between the late 1950s and late 1960s. Sold at shops called “Büfes,” this way of eating Döner was a side effect of the explosive population growth of Istanbul during those years, caused by migratory movements from the poor countryside, and took the tradition of grilling meats to an urban context where the ubiquitous countryside BBQs weren’t possible. This novel way of serving and eating Döner had quietly existed in Turkey for several years without raising too much attention, and then surfaced 2,000 km away in Germany where the worldwide road to fame was initiated. The Döner was brought to Germany by Turkish guest workers (their number peaked at 617,531 in 1974), who most likely picked up on the trend during trips back to the motherland, and then smartly realized the potential of the dish. And as the financial crisis of the early 1970s forced many Turkish guest workers into unemployment, starting Döner restaurants was a welcome opportunity for those who didn’t want to return to Turkey.

Asim Usta Karadeniz
The legendary Karadeniz Döner in Besiktas

While the early Döner Kebap in Germany apparently initially resembled the product you would get in Turkey, which is a very meat-centric sandwich made out of lamb or a lamb-beef mix, supplemented merely with condiments like onions and dried spices, the German Döner slowly morphed into something else. The clever German Turks identified a more conscious consumption trend toward more vegetable-focused, healthier eating and started adding tomatoes, salad, cucumbers and red cabbage to the Döner sandwich, marketing the Döner as a healthier fast food alternative to sausages, burgers and the like. Simultaneously, as it so often is the case with “brown immigrant foods,” the Döner became subject to constant price pressure, and the only way to accommodate the growing hunger for 3 Mark and, later, 3€ Döner in Germany was to use cheaper ingredients. In order to secure any profit, Döner shops felt forced to use minced meat skewers of the lowest quality and mayo-laced sauces to hide the taste of it, but also using cheap sandwich fillers such as iceberg lettuce and red cabbage (another, direct result were frequent meat scandals such as the one in 2007)  There is no historical data on when exactly this all happened. We can assume that it was a continuous process but, for once, I’m fully on board with the argument that the Döner Kebap, as we know it today in Berlin, with its specific condiments, was invented in Germany, and from Germany it spread across the European continent like a kebap wildfire, making the Döner the most popular street food from Prague to London and Paris to Helsinki.

“I’m fully on board with the argument that the Döner Kebap, as we know it today in Berlin, with its specific condiments, was invented in Germany”

No self-respecting Döner master in Turkey would ever defile his kebap by adding salad, cucumbers, cabbage or sauces. A Döner Kebap in Turkey is all about the meat and only accentuated by condiments such as onions, pickles and, sometimes, tomatoes. Eating Döner in Istanbul is a remarkable experience where many famous Döner shops are run by their owners, and therefore not known by the name of the shop, but by the name of the “Usta,” the kebap master in charge of the skewer: Asım Usta, Şahin Usta, Engin Usta, to name just a few (there are certainly also larger establishments, such as Bayramoğlu, that serve a fantastic product). What all of these have in common is how their Döner skewers are stacked at the restaurant by hand and served in unique, custom-baked flatbreads.

Sahin Usta Istanbul
The Sahin Usta Döner near the Grand Bazaar in its characteristic flatbread roll

Another fascinating sidetrack for the Berlin Döner that can’t be ignored is the Chicken Gemüse Kebap, a modern iteration of the Döner based on chicken meat, which has gained massively in popularity over the last decade. The Chicken Gemüse Döner story, just like the original Döner, is based on the ability to adapt to market conditions: In 1996, mad cow disease spread across the European continent, plunging the demand for beef for a brief period. A Turkish Döner restaurant owner named Mustafa Demir tested selling Döner with chicken instead of beef, and it turned out that his guests enjoyed this “lighter” version of the Döner so much that he switched his whole business to Chicken Döner. Mustafa started experimenting further and one day he had some leftover vegetables he fried and added to the Döner along with cheese and lemon juice, and suddenly, he had invented the “Chicken Gemüse Döner” as we know it today: thinly sliced Chicken Döner meat, salad, tomatoes, onions, sauce, fried vegetables (potatoes, peppers, onions, etc.), and on top, crumbled Turkish white cheese and a squeeze of lemon. Tarik Kara, a former business associate of Demir, popularized this version of the Döner at his “Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap” shop in Kreuzberg, which today appears in every tourist guide and counts as Germany’s most famous Döner restaurant.

During the 15 years I dedicated to Döner Kebap eating in Berlin, I hardly ever saw any innovation.

After my journeys to Turkey, I was in fact so disillusioned by the stagnation of the Berlin Döner that I left the dish untouched for over a year. The continuous lack of ambition to improve quality in any way was disheartening and instead of progress, I sensed a decline, saw how shops starting using Döner cutting robots, cheaper meat and adding more and more outrageous sauces and condiments to their kebap sandwiches. However, the work leading up to the list of the best Döner Kebap in Berlin gave me hope. New players like K.W.A. are filling the role of the Döner trailblazer I had always sought out and, in addition, many traditional players are upping their game and understanding the market for high-end Döner. My hopes are that we are indeed at the end of the Döner Dark Ages and that a wave of artisanal Döner will one day roll across the city, truly making Berlin the Döner capital it is already reputed to be. But this time around with substance.

Sources:

Möhring, M. (2012). Fremdes Essen. Die Geschichte der ausländischen Gastronomie in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (1. Auflage). Oldenbourg Verlag München.
Anadologlu, C. (2020). Einmal mit Alles (1. Auflage). Callwey Verlag.
Seidel-Pielen, E. (1996). Aufgespießt: Wie der Döner über die Deutschen kam (1. Auflage). Rotbuch Verlag.
Cemre Torun (Food editor Vogue Turkey GQ Turkey) Academy Chair The World’s 50 Best Restaurants)
Maksut Askar (Execute Chef & Owner “Neolokal” in Istanbul)
Mehmet Gürs (Execute Chef & Owner “Mikla” in Istanbul)

Asim Usta Karadeniz
The legendary Karadeniz Döner and Asım Usta at his shop in Besiktas
Charanga Istanbul
The Charanga Döner in its characteristic sweet bread
Engin Usta Istanbul Doner Pide
The Engin Usta Döner
Istanbul Bayramoglu
A skewer at Bayramoğlu on the Asian side of Istanbul
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