FoodLense: The İstanbul-Berlin Döner Wars

Turkish dish the döner has carved out a place for itself in modern German cuisine. It has surpassed the hamburger in Germany's fast food sector. Despite its Turkish roots, some people think the döner made in Germany is better than those made in Turkey.

Posted on 11/28/14
By Zeynep Kiliç | Via Today's Zaman
German Chancellor Merkel is seen cutting döner from a spit. The döner industry, which is mostly in the hands of the Turkish community, sells nearly 300 tons daily in Germany.(Photo via Today's Zaman)
German Chancellor Merkel is seen cutting döner from a spit. The döner industry, which is mostly in the hands of the Turkish community, sells nearly 300 tons daily in Germany. (Photo via Today’s Zaman)

When I first visited Germany some eight years ago, I couldn’t make sense of the fact that everyone insisted I should try the döner kebab there, swearing it would be unlike anything I had tasted up until then. At the Berlin döner restaurant I went to, the cook there assured me that “I had never eaten anything like this in İstanbul.”


Food Lense1It was clear that this was indeed the case from the bountiful amounts of both meat and salad placed in between the bread; in fact, it appeared that the meat and salad bits we are accustomed to finding in the bread in İstanbul has turned into a bit of bread lost in vast amounts of meat and salad in Berlin. When it comes to the taste, it was hard for me to say it was either “good” or “bad.” Maybe the most appropriate thing I could have said was “different.”


Clearly, there is no fear of lots of meat in Germany; while you get a few slices of meat with some fries and greens on your döner in İstanbul, in Germany you get not only lots of meat, but also a variety of sauces and a bunch of vegetables, even red cabbage!


This being the case, it’s not unlikely that people with strong food preferences who head from either Germany to Turkey or from Turkey to Germany might long for the döner to which they have become accustomed in their country of origin.


The Berlin döner arrives in İstanbul

But really though, how are these different types of döner so completely unlike one another in taste? Yılmaz Baltacı has a lot to say on the matter. The 30-year-old Baltacı lived in Germany between 2002 and 2008, and like so many Turks there, entered into the food business. In Germany, for a Turk to enter into the food business means that Turk will be producing döner.


For six years Baltaci made both döner and pizza, and when he returned to Turkey to do his military service, he entered into a business about which he had dreamed for a long time: He opened a döner buffet in Taksim and introduced his fellow Turks to the German döner he considers the “real döner.”


Of course, he wound up naming this döner the “Berlin Döner.” He ordered a special case that could hold 12 different sauces and vegetable toppings; he put a sign in the window advertising the sort of stuff he was offering.


Baltacı stayed true to the idea of putting lots and lots of meat into his döners. However, while the Germans and the Turkish-German community living in İstanbul might have liked what he was offering, most Turks turned up their noses at his döner, saying: “This is not a döner. This is salad. And what the heck is red cabbage doing in a döner?!” In the end, Baltaci wound up renaming his restaurant “Berlin Pizza,” eliminating the word “döner” from the title.


Baltacı is still a bit annoyed by the reception his döner received here: “Here in İstanbul, people seem to be afraid of putting meat into the bread. Ok, I get it, the meat here is expensive. But what about chicken? That’s not [expensive], yet they still put so little in? Also, I care about hygiene and had a TL 2,000 case built for my sauces and toppings so that they would stay clean. But no one gets this. Instead, they eat at those döner places in the center, which are right next to the exhaust fumes of thousands of cars passing every day.”


When asked if he believes the döner has become the national food of Germany, Baltacı replied: “Absolutely. It is number one in the fast food arena. I worked in the döner sector for six years in Germany. Most of my customers were German.


Fast food leader

According to Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe (ATDID) spokesperson Gürsel Ülber, the döner has definitely carved out a place for itself in modern German cuisine. Ülber asserts that in Europe, the döner business is worth 3-3.5 billion euros annually. He notes that in Berlin alone there are more than 1,200 restaurants selling döners. Ülber says the döner has definitely surpassed the hamburger in Germany’s fast food sector, but he doesn’t think, as Baltacı does, that the döner made in Germany is better than those made in Turkey.


“Of course, there are great differences. The meat in Turkey is much darker than the meat in Germany. In Germany, they use all sorts of yoghurt and hot sauces, since it works with the European palate better. Also, the bread used in the two countries is very different. While in Turkey they use oven-baked bread, in Germany they use what we would call a Ramazan pide, cut into quarters. Also, in Germany, the bread is toasted. But none of this means that one country is producing better döner than the other, just that each country has its own range of tastes,” Ülber says.


Was the döner discovered in Germany?


But what about assertions claiming the döner was in fact stumbled across by Turks in Germany in the 1970s? Almost everyone accepts that the döner has been present in Turkey since the 19th century, known as İskender kebab. As many continue to insist it was Turks living outside of Turkey who discovered the döner, we decided to ask Ülber about this: “Definitely not. The history of the döner goes back way before the 70s, in fact to the 50s.” He continues: “But this is true. The döner served up in Germany with the sauces and the abundant amounts of vegetables is definitely German, not Turkish.”


According to Samet Yılmaz, who was born and raised in Germany all his life and moved to İstanbul four years ago: “With the portions in Germany, you are filled up the same way you would be if you ate [a regular portion of] İskender. Here, [döner] is more like a snack. We are just not used to the other way.”


Yılmaz spoke about the different tastes that the different döners appeal to: “Our relatives come every now and then to visit. I invite them to come and eat a döner with us, but they respond: ‘We already eat that in Turkey. What use is it eating it here?’ But after they actually have some in Germany, they understand how different these two dishes are.” When we ask Yılmaz if he orders the döner in Turkey, he says, “To tell the truth, I eat it as a snack here, but I don’t really do it for pleasure.”


When one considers the fact that German cuisine is not so rich, it’s not hard to understand why the döner might be the country’s national food. There is even a song with the line “Ich bin döner” in it! In spite of this, there are also examples of Germans use the döner to insult Turks, including the expression: “Turks are only good for döners!” Also, serial murders in which Turks are targeted are referred to in German as “dönermord,” or döner deaths.


ATDID spokesperson Ülber also commented on an anti-döner campaign that started up last week in France: “It is difficult to prevent this type of rhetoric. The döner is powerful on its own. Most foreigners and Germans just don’t enter this sector, since it’s really not about money. There are around 200,000-250,000 people who make their living in this sector. So it really is powerful. But we really don’t like to enter every argument. We prefer to just mind our business.”


Baltacı spreads out his pizza dough, but his mind is still stuck on döner. He says, “I’ve done what I can,” adding that he will one day return to the döner business. “But not here; in Germany. Let people who understand this food eat it!”


This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. Click here to go to the original.

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