Essence of berlin

The Döner Kebab: Fuel of a City

Sam Bavin 7 mins
The Döner Kebab: Fuel of a City

In the early 1960s the West German economy was booming.

Post World War II, radical domestic economic overhaul (the introduction of the Deutsche Mark and an extreme pro-business policy) coupled with international aid from the Marshall Plan had transformed West Germany into an industrial powerhouse. It was a pillar of the European Economic Community and had become the second biggest car manufacturer in the world. The need for labour seemed endless.

Gastarbeiter (guest workers) were invited into West Germany from southern Europe and further east. By the end of the ‘50s labour recruitment agreements already existed between West Germany and Italy, Spain, and Greece. On October 30th 1961 – 10 days before the construction of the Berlin Wall – West Germany struck up another agreement with Turkey.

After passing fitness tests and being given vaccinations, hundreds of thousands of Turks boarded specially provided trains in Ankara and Istanbul and were brought to West Germany to provide human fuel for the fires of thriving West German industry. They arrived in Munich, where they would then be distributed to the parts of the country where they were needed.

West Berlin saw a massive influx of Turkish labour – reconstruction was still progressing apace and service industries were starting to burgeon. Many Turks were settled in areas that were less desirable for other West Berliners: districts squidged up against the Berlin Wall such as Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding – all of which are still strongholds for Berlin’s Turkish communities today.

Now, in 2018, Turks are the largest ethnic minority living in Berlin. In late 2016, it was reported that there were approximately 350,000 Turks (Turkish citizens registered as foreign nationals, German citizens with a ‘migrant’ background, or those holding dual Turkish-German citizenship) living in the city. This means that Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey.

They have set down deep roots and brought their own cultural and culinary traditions with them to the German capital. Nowhere is this more evident than in the döner kebap: the undisputed king of Berlin’s fast foods (sorry Currywurst). Hardcore enthusiasts will argue that the döner was invented in Berlin. In 1972, as the legend goes, a street vendor named Kadir Nurman, who had emigrated to Germany in the ‘60s, opened a stall in West Berlin serving traditional Turkish grilled meat with salad. His innovation? Serving it up in a flatbread so that busy Berliners could carry it with them and eat it on the go. Thus, supposedly, the döner kebab was born. Nurman died in 2013. His legacy lives on. Döner is the fuel on which the city feeds.

Berlin now has over 4,000 kebab shops (more than Istanbul), and Berliners consume a staggering 60 tonnes of döner meat a day. German companies producing the meat and machinery for grilling supply 80% of the EU market. What’s more, Berlin and German kebab culture is now a commodity to be exported – in London, for example, kebab shop chain German Döner Kebab boasts that they offer ‘kebabs, done right.’

Where to go to get a fix in Berlin then? In truth, it’s hard to go wrong. In such a competitive marketplace, prices remain reasonable – your average döner with all the trimmings will set you back €3-4. The general quality is high, too – a joint serving dodgy döner in a prime area wouldn’t last five minutes, because there’d be dozens of places within a ten minute radius doing it better.

The contemporary don of döner for many is the original Mustafas on Mehringdamm. This modest little kiosk on the pavement routinely has a lengthy queue out front (there’s a livecam on their website so you can check the length of the line before you go) so be prepared to wait. Their meat stack (chicken) has layers of fresh vegetables throughout and their sandwiches come topped with cheese, fresh dill, and a squeeze of lemon. It’s reputation is such that you’ll see plenty of unofficial franchises dotted around the city riding on the coattails of their respected name.

Elsewhere in Kreuzberg, Hasir (Berlin’s largest Turkish restaurant empire) crows, loud and erroneously, that they invented the döner in their original Adalbertstraße location. Whether you agree with their all-conquering mentality or not, there’s no denying that their döner is a good one – erring on the classic side without the veggies in the meat stack.

To get away from the touristy crowd you should head a little further west of Kreuzberg, to Schöneberg, and Rüyam Gemüse Kebab on Hauptstraße. Like Mustafas you get all the nice little extras – the crumbly cheese, the squeeze of lemon, the grilled veg – and the quality is just as good, only it’s cheaper and you won’t have to queue forever and ever (and ever). Imren Grill have several spots across the city now too, and they’re all reliably excellent.

So go forth, good people, and tuck into some 20th century German migratory history. It’ll cost you less than a regular museum and taste undoubtedly better.