“Döner kebabs were invented in Berlin, actually,” claimed my friend Rene as he guided Andy and I around street food stands to soak up some late night beers we’d indulged in after our reunion in Berlin. “A Turkish immigrant invented them here.”
I would have prodded further into this claim, but following Rene’s lead has saved my butt before, when I followed him out of an abandoned train in a Thai-Malaysian border compound into Kuala Lumpur a few months earlier. After several fiascos, I’ve learned to trust the Germans who speak excellent English I seem to meet during train rides gone awry. So, I let Berlin have its claim to the döner kebab, though I’d encountered the sandwiches filled with crisp veggies, spicy sauce, and spit-cooked meat all along the Eurail journey from Istanbul to Berlin, sampling the döners along the way in Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich, and finally into Germany.
For the most part, traveling by rail from Turkey to Germany has been a series of breezy sojourns through train stations filled with pretzels, chocolate, döner kebabs, and beer, with accidental knock-outs to others from my huge backpack being the most formidable obstacle. Eurail trains run fast and on time, and no one even cares if you crack open a can of beer in the first class compartment. Border stops are practically nonexistent and the dining cars have tables covered in white linen table cloths.
Cushy European trains are a vacation in themselves compared to the ill-fated Malaysian train where I met Rene, as well as the ridiculously difficult route from Istanbul to Bucharest–outside of the Eurail pass zone, I’ll add. As Turkey and Bulgaria renovate their rail lines, they’ve substituted buses along portions of the route that in the past featured a single night train with sleeper cars. In the meantime, passengers are shuttled on and off buses and train cars, with a lengthy wait at a Turkish border compound in the night’s wee hours stashed in between. Our wait was extended by a fellow passenger, long-distance cyclist, and German citizen named Stephen whose expired visa triggered the nastier parts of the border control bureaucratic process.
Because I lent him bribe money (which is always the well-mannered thing to do), I got to question Stephen on the last leg of the overnight bus-train-bus-train journey from Sophia to Bucharest, right after a group of Roma women woke me to remove their bags of smuggled Turkish goods from invisible nooks and crannies within my own car. It turns out the soon-to-be math teacher had spent four months in Istanbul learning Turkish after riding his bike all the way from Germany. When I asked him why he wanted to learn Turkish, he gave an answer familiar to a former Spanish student in Texas, “Germany has a large Turkish population, and I want to be able to communicate with them. I think it’s important.”
Turks make up Germany’s largest minority group. Though the two nations have been friends of sorts since alliances formed in the Ottoman and Prussian times, the current Turkish diaspora in Germany dates to a 1961 worker agreement. Encouraged by both governments, the agreement facilitated the emigration of Turkish citizens to West Germany, where they could secure residency and work while helping to rebuilt the post-war economy. About half of these guest workers stayed in Germany after the agreement ended in 1973, bearing second and third generation children, some of whom have German citizenship under relaxed naturalization laws.
However, the good relationship between the Turkish and German governments does not mean that life is easy for the Turks living in Germany today. The children and grandchildren of those original guest workers still largely exist as foreigners outside the German mainstream, experiencing struggles with education, living conditions, and employment. Many families who have been in Germany for over 50 years still identify as immigrants, foreigners, with all the heavy baggage that comes along with being an other.
The legend of the Berliner döner kebab draws from a romanticized story of the downtroddenTurkish guest worker who while in poor state of hungry homesickness devises a cheap way to serve Turkish flavors to the masses. The anonymous worker achieves his goal by sticking clumps of seasoned meat to a vertical spit and serving the grilled meat in thin slices with crisp vegetables and a creamy sauce reminiscent of cacik (Turkish tzatziki) inside an available bread product. The result is so desirable, it attracts followers from the German community, and soon the Turkish worker opens up his very own döner kebab snack stand, transcending the spirit of the worker agreement. It’s a lovely, American-dreamish story of economic success through multiculturalism, so of course it can’t be real.
In reality, “döner kebab” simply means “rotating meat” in Turkish, and the concept has been around since some early human decided to roast an animal skewered with a stick over fire in a stroke of genius. The oldest Ottoman tradition of the döner kebab consisted of meat, most often lamb, that was cut up and picked through to remove nerves, bones, and cartilage and stacked across to a horizontal spit. The move to a vertical spit is attributed to Iskender Efendi, who realized that the orientation was better for removing meat drippings, and whose Bursa-based descendants still own a patent for the Iskender Kebab–a pita topped with longer strips of meat served under melted butter and a yogurt sauce.
When Berliners claim the invention of the döner kebab, what they really mean is the adaptation of the Turkish food to a German fast food market. The man who claims to have invented the German döner kebab amended the longstanding Ottoman tradition for the fast food world he perceived in Germany. Turkish döner kebabs are usually served over rice, and the entrepreneur thought that by making a sandwich, he could cater to the drunks stumbling home late at night and workers on the go while reducing the clean-up expenses at his snack stand.
He was right; the döner kebab fast food concept has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar industry under the helm of the second generation of Turkish immigrants. Perhaps the döner kebab is the best success story coming from the Turkish diaspora, as those who have perfected the fast food technique have developed franchises accruing massive wealth from the adaptation of a Turkish tradition to a European market. Franchise döner kebab operations across Europe largely maintain roots in the German-Turkish community centered in Berlin, meaning everything from the 10 franc ($10USD) kebab I purchased in Zurich to the 500 forint ($2.30USD) kebab I ate in Budapest probably supported a Turkish-operated company in Germany. Aside from franchises, Turks in Germany have developed new döner spit technologies and also export meats to satisfy the growing demand of European neighbors.
Of course, the popularity of a meaty sandwich cannot ameliorate the challenges faced by Germany’s Turkish community, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate what has worked and cherish optimism for the future. The döner kebab stands alongside the taco, the pizza, and bowls of pho as a working class, immigrant food fully accepted by a host community. Perhaps the wealth created by the döner industry will help cushion subsequent generations of Turkish-Germans. Or, perhaps I’m just rationalizing my next purchase of Germany’s most delicious and more recent culinary innovation ordered my way: a döner kebab with a toasty flat bread cradling seasoned beef, purple cabbage, and an extra helping of a spicy sauce. Mmmm.
Susan’s train travel across Europe was sponsored by Eurail.com. They have no control of the content of her writing, but are simply a partner of Vagabundo Magazine.