Kadir Nurman, a Turkish immigrant, recently died in Berlin at the age of 80. Nurman’s death has been covered by many news sources and the retired Turkish Gastarbeiter has been once again hailed as the inventor of the döner kebab. But was he really?
Let me start with a heart-breaking statement for all döner fans out there. No self-respecting Turkish person, who knows what a good, genuine döner is, would call this Europeanized, fabricated, mass-produced, ground meat-based jumble of spare animal parts, a döner. I might have also lost my composure and gone for one at the end of a heavy night of drinking, but after five bottles of an average German pils one doesn’t really realize what he is gulping down now, does he?
If you have been living long enough in Berlin, on one of those nights, someone with a smear of garlic sauce at the edge of his mouth must have asked you while munching on his end-of-the-night sandwich: Did you know that the döner was invented in Berlin?
There are of course variations on this theme, some less preposterous, some uttered with no prudence at all, and some terribly half-baked like the so-called döner you would find in the Imbiss next-door. So, is it true? Was the döner really invented in Berlin or Germany? And if not, where does this rumour originate from?
First things first: Döner of course was not invented in Germany. According to one legend, its historical roots can be found in the Tataric tradition of wrapping meat around a sword and cooking it on open fire. Fast forward a few hundred or maybe a thousand years and we see “döner” mentioned in the travelbooks of European wanderers who toured Ottoman Empire back in the 19th century.
The first German who mentioned “döner” in his travelbooks was none other than Helmuth von Moltke, who was stationed in Turkey to modernize the Ottoman Army. Moltke reports on a particularly memorable kebap session he had in 1836. But there is also something heart-wrenching in his story, in which he mentions how much he missed his potatoes. A gastronomic malfunction of epic proportions!
The word “döner”, originates from the verb “dönmek” in Turkish, which literally means to rotate. So the basic principle is to rotate the meat wrapped around a stick. According to these sources, this ur-döner used to be an horizontal stack of lamb, which is still cooked in Eastern Anatolia and known as “cağ kebabı”. The 19th century was of course an era of pioneers and inventors and Turkey’s answer to your Graham Bells and Edisons was none other than adventurous İskender Efendi of Bursa. As is the case with all groundbreaking ideas, İskender Efendi’s was quite simple yet devious. Why don’t we wrap the meat around a vertical stick in the shape of an inverted cone and cook it against a vertical barbecue? This way, the fat, rather than dripping on the fire, will flow down from the top adding another layer of taste. It will also be easier to cut and serve it. That, of course, was a game-changer and the İskender Döner today is a patented food, which is basically pieces of döner served on a bed of pita bread with yoghurt and melted butter on top. On the other hand, some sources also quote a certain Hamdi from Kastamonu, who might have come up with the exact same idea almost around the same time as İskender. Long story short, we don’t know exactly who invented the döner, but we definitely know that it wasn’t invented in Berlin.
But, despite all my attempts to prove the opposite, it does seem that the idea of a döner sandwich, selling döner meat inside a piece of bread, was first concevied in Berlin. According to the Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe, this hero of our time, is no other than Kadir Nurman, who opened the first döner shop of Germany on Hardenberger Strasse near Zoologischer Garten. Mehmet Aygün, who owns the terriyfingly growing chain of Hasir restaurants, also claims to be the inventor of döner, but it is Nurman who was officially honoured by the association.
This is where it gets murky, thanks to the German press’ slightly Eurocentric and ignorant tendency to use the generic word “döner” for the döner sandwich or “Döner im Brot”. Here is what you get from a quick Internet search.
Frankfurter Rundschau: “Kadir Nurman hat vor knapp 40 Jahren den Döner erfunden (…). / Kadir Nurman invented the döner almost 40 years ago.” (I am sorry Rundschau, he didn’t. It was invented way back in 19th century.)
Spiegel Online: “Döner-Erfinder mag keine Tomaten im Fladenbrot / Inventor of döner doesn’t like tomatoes in döner sandwich” (Dear Spiegel, he might be right about the tomatoes, but I am sure your reporter hasn’t had the chance to meet with İskender Efendi.)
Berlin.de: “Döner Kebab ist eine Berliner Erfindung / Döner kebab is a Berlin invention” (My God, this is getting ridiculous. Herr Wowereit, tear down this wall of misconception.)
Bild: “Döner-Erfinder mag Döner nicht mehr / Döner-inventor doesn’t like döner anymore” (OK Bild, you are allowed to get away with it. That’s why you’re there after all, isn’t it?)
Now that we have established the facts, it is time for some more pretentious “Europeanized döner” bashing. As the so-called inventor of döner, Kadir Nurman, also wryly states, apart from a few radicals, nobody in Berlin prepares their döner themselves anymore. What you eat is fabricated crap, containing God knows what kind of industrial ingredients. Some do it better than others; but in Turkey a “dönerci” always comes to work early in the morning to prepare the day’s roll and sells his own stuff. That’s why every döner is different and that’s why one doesn’t simply go into the first imbiss he sees.
And please don’t get me started with those electronic döner cutters, a disgrace to 200 years of gastronomic history. In Turkey, döner is also known as “yaprak (leaf) döner” and there is a simple reason for that. The strips of döner are supposed to be long and lean like an almond leaf. That mess of crumpled meat inside your bread is only good to feed the chickens in the backyard.
During my first forays into the döner ecosystem of Germany as a fresh Wahlberliner, I was appalled to learn that I was supposed to pick a sauce to eat with my döner. And as if this was not enough of a direct affront against everything I believed, another greater shock was in store: One of the sauces on offer was a spicy sauce for Allah’s sake! The only explanation I can think of regarding this obsession with sauce is the possibility that this industrialized kebab-imitiation only becomes palatable when it is garnished with something else.
Last but not least: Salat complett! In one of my shameful escapades a few years ago, I ended up in that big döner place on Rosenthaler Platz with another Turkish friend of mine, Kadir. Kadir was drunk und er brauchte das Döner. He specifically asked for a well-cooked döner in Turkish. As the mean-looking, stone-faced, portly guy behind the counter asked for Kadir’s choice of sauce and salad, he coolly answered: “No sauce. No salad. Lots of onion and a few pieces of tomato please.” The server’s exhausted face lighted up at once, eyes brighter than a Ku’damm shop window, he extended his hand from behind the counter to shake Kadir’s, and with an enthusiasm he didn’t care to hide, he said: “I want to congratulate you my friend. Well done! This is how kebab is supposed to be eaten. What the fuck is cabbage doing in a döner sandwich?” Yes, all that green stuff are balancing elements and makes the döner perhaps healthier than your average American fast-food, but hey, eating kebab is not about health, it is rather a filthy, greasy affair, which gets better and juicier in direct proportion to the amount of fat involved!
Despite all these depressing facts, I am not proposing that you stop eating döner altogether. After all, Berlin is probably second in line only after Istanbul when it comes to the number of döner restaurants and it is still possible to eat a decent döner in the birthplace of the döner sandwich.
My top address is a rather recent discovery: Merhaba Döner at Greifswalder Str. 32. The owner here buys his meat from a German company called Neuland and prepares his döner himself every day. In terms of the taste, it is as close as it gets to the genuine Turkish-style döner and the owner really puts effort into his döner, even asking the regulars if he was too generous with salt that day. It is a little bit on the expensive side (€ 4,50 for a regular döner sandwich) but worth the trip if you are into the real deal.
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab over at Mehringdamm 32 is already a big success story. It is not the stuff for a faint-hearted food conservative, but Mustafa’s innovative approach and his spirit of entrepreunership makes the place worth checking out.
Another place where you can eat home-made döner made from quality beef is İmren Grill, with its five branches in Neukölln, Wedding and Kreuzberg. İmren’s döner doesn’t taste like the typical döner you would find in Turkey, but it has also nothing to do with the fabricated crap you eat elsewhere. Go check whether that unusual addition of cinnamon suits the döner. And if you do, don’t expect to find bottles of beer lined up in the fridge, İmren’s owners are into religion.
Image credits, via Flickr: 1. © Sascha Kohlmann 2. © Alex Kehr 3. © EmBe79 4. © Tanja Djordjevic