The Döner: Germany’s Meal On-the-Go

By Matthias Knobloch on Email

The döner has become Germany’s typical choice for fast food. One can find a “Dönerbude” (equivalent to Hot Dog stand) in nearly every city in Germany. This delicious and nutritious meal is inexpensive and fills you up.

Erfurt, Germany at Midnight: An unmistakable smell leads us to my favorite Turkish restaurant in Erfurt’s medieval city center. The meat on the vertical rotisserie is turning behind the wide open window. Underneath the glass counter lie further ingredients: onion, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, red and white cabbage, goat cheese and traditional sauces (with or without garlic). The smell of freshly baked pita bread fills the little döner place entirely. One can also find falafel, stuffed grape leaves and eggplant, kofta, Turkish pizzas, and other delicious delicacies from Turkey and the Middle East in this typical dönerbude. One döner is 3 Euros, and after a night in a beer garden, there is always room for a döner. My wife and I are watching the Turkish-looking man preparing the döner. Even though we had a great traditional Thuringian dinner prepared by my mother earlier that night, and even though we are still stuffed and cannot even think about eating, our mouths are watering as if we were starving for days.

A German city without a döner stand is like a city in the USA without a hamburger restaurant. The Germans love to eat döner. Approximately 15,000 dönerbuden are selling their Turkishsandwiches in Germany with an ever-increasing intensity. The döner always sells, even in an economic recession. For about 3 Euros, it’s nutritious, contains fresh ingredients, and fills you up. Testsieger, the German version of the magazine Consumer Reports, once found that the döner is the healthier choice for fast food – beating both the hamburger and the bratwurst. After all, the döner meat is made up of mainly veal, which tends to be healthier than pork meat, french fries, and most other sins of fast food restaurants.

While Turkish people usually eat their döner kebab on a plate with pita bread on the side, the döner outside of Turkey is generally served in the form of a pita sandwich. Pita bread is filled with vegetables, sauces, and of course, the döner meat.  This sandwich is also known as a gyro, which is the same form of meat, from Greece. The döner kebab sandwich was developed in Germany by Turkish guest workers in the late 1960’s and 70’s. The exact date of the first opening of a dönerbude is still unknown, but many say that the first döner stand began business in 1971 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Nowadays, Berlin is known as Europe’s döner capital. You would be hard-pressed to find a block without a dönerbude. Berlin is also the center of the döner industry of the country – and Europe overall. Industrially-prepared döner meat on a spit delivered to dönerbuden across the Germany is the newest good producers can count on in export balances at the end of each year. Whereas Turkish restaurants used to prepare their own restaurant spits, now even Turkey imports meat from Berlin.

The Turkish people have surely enriched Germany’s culinary culture. The German food environment without the döner is hardly imaginable. Very often, I find myself walking through Chicago, craving a döner with extra garlic sauce. Unfortunately I haven’t found a place that sells the döner I know from home, but I won’t give up looking for it. I urge you to try a döner on one of your next trips to Germany. Believe me – you won’t regret it.

Matthias Knobloch