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You are here: Home Leisure Dining & Cuisine Germany's new national dishThe ubiquitous doener kebab
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10/10/2005Germany's new national dishThe ubiquitous doener kebab

Germany's new national dishThe ubiquitous doener kebab Since its invention in Berlin in the 1970s, the ubiquitous doener kebab has become Germany's new national food. In the latest instalment of our Inside Track series, which takes a closer look at aspects of German culture, we examine the nation's favourite snack.


If Germany still has a national dish, it is no longer Eisbein or even currywurst, the Berlin concoction of sliced sausage sprinkled with curry powder famously loved by Gerhard Schroeder, but the doener kebab. Allegedly invented by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin's Kreuzberg district in the early 1970s, the 'doener', as it is affectionately known, is eaten in its thousands every day, by all sections of German society, from school children to pensioners.

Germany's unofficial national dish consists of thin slices of meat cut from a huge rotating cone (hence the name, which comes from the Turkish verb 'to turn') and served in a sandwich consisting of a quarter of a large round Fladenbrot (flat bread) with salad and sauce. Like many dishes thought to belong to foreign national cuisines, the German doener bears a passing resemblance to its Turkish original but is really a product of its new homeland.

Don't think about it too much

It is not clear what kind of meat is actually in the doener cone, which has a squidgy, homogenous texture and is the colour of mud. But the Germans, a nation of sausage-lovers, are long accustomed to not asking too many questions about their meat products, and seem untroubled by the provenance of what they probably think of as simply Doenerfleisch from some mythical Doenertier.

The doenermen (as I shall call the - almost exclusively male - assemblers of the doener, by analogy with their Japanese colleagues the sushimen) are cut from many different sociological cloths. The wide variety of types found behind the doener counter range from intelligent, well-groomed young men presumably paying their way through college, to smiling entrepreneurs trying to lure passers-by into their eateries with cries of the catchy slogan "doener macht schoener!" ("doeners make you more beautiful!") , to dejected middle-aged drudges with mournful moustaches.

A modern take on the spit

One of the doenerman's main tasks is to lovingly revolve the sacred meat cone by a series of fork prods, as the panel of heating elements - which substitute for the open fire in this vertical version of the spit - turns sections of its surface from mud to mahogany. The charred meat gets shaved off with a knife resembling a ceremonial sword, with varying degrees of panache and enthusiasm depending on the temperament of the doenerman in question.

Mysteriously, one never sees the doener cone being replaced, although on occasion the early diner can behold it in all its virgin glory, fresh from the freezer and impossibly bloated. By the end of the day or night, depending on the hours the particular doener establishment keeps (and some of them, driven to desperate measures by the crushing price competition caused by thousands of businesses selling a near-identical product, keep very long hours indeed), the cone has dwindled to a slender column resembling a well-nibbled apple core. (Although somehow, no matter how late the night, the cone never actually gets finished.)

A daily ritual

The act of purchasing a doener is a highly-ritualised transaction involving a small set of combinatorial possibilities which are determined by the doenerman through an institutionalised pair of barked queries.

The fine art of doener meat shaving (Photo: Wikipedia)

The first question is the one word interrogative 'Sauce?' To which the jejune might be tempted – wrongly - to reply 'yes', or possibly 'no'. However the question presents not an either/or choice but a set of three alternatives, which are never explicitly stated except to children, tourists or other innocents not expected to know the ways of the world.

The unvarying Oily Trinity of sauces consists of 'garlic', 'herb', and 'hot', and, like most of the elements which make up the doener, appear to be identical irrespective of the establishment (one reason for that crippling price competition). Their consistency can best be described as 'gloopy'. The customer can specify one or two (but never three) of the sauces, which will then be ceremoniously slopped onto the inside of the bread pocket and spread around with a large spoon.

In certain, more conscientious establishments, the two sides of the bread will then be pressed firmly together. It is not clear what the purpose of this manoeuvre is, whether to ensure the sauce is evenly spread across the surface of the bread, or - in the case of two different sauces - to encourage the two condiments to marry and intermingle (a task which would presumably also take place on the palate of the consumer if left to chance). In any case, the doenermen clearly believe in the virtues of compressing the sandwich and do it at various stages of the assembly operation.

The onion dilemma

Once the sauce decision is taken care of, the customer is now asked the second question, 'With everything?' This is not so much a genuine question as a check as to whether the default salad components are acceptable or not.

However, given that the 'everything' in question refers to shredded lettuce (almost always the tasteless iceberg variety), cucumber and tomato salad, and chopped raw onions, and that few people take offence at shredded lettuce or cucumber and tomato salad, what the question really boils down to is: onions or no onions?

Accordingly, the only answers which this question can receive are either a simple 'yes' or the slightly more confrontational 'no onions'. Any other response will simply not be parsed. (I have on occasion, in an attempt to regulate the quantities of salad involved, which are generally so large that the resulting wedge of a sandwich can not be eaten in public with any semblance of dignity, tried to specify 'just a little salad'. However this has rarely had any effect on the amount of raw foliage stuffed into my bread.)

Fast but messy

The resulting sandwich is either handed over in its little paper jacket, decorated with a picture of a prototypical moustachioed doenerman in front of a spit, for immediate consumption, or is deftly wrapped in aluminium foil to take away.

Unfortunately the doener is one of the least ergonomic takeaway foods and can, ironically, only be eaten in comfort at home, on a plate. Unlike, say, the hot dog, whose handy form makes it ideal for eating as a quick, filling snack grabbed on the run (and what other function is fast food intended to fulfil?), the kebab sandwich is always so over-stuffed that it is impossible to fit into one's mouth. Its flat triangular shape complicates matters, making the snack simply too broad to be eaten without sauce smearing the edges of your mouth and (most embarrassingly) cheeks.

Another fundamental design flaw in the doener is the fact that it is filled in a vertical position but eaten horizontally. This results in finely chopped pieces of salad tumbling merrily from their bready confines onto your jacket, lap and the floor of the underground train in which you are trying to grab some sustenance before your next appointment.

As a final insult, the sauce which gives the snack much of its taste also contributes to its ultimate demise; its essential gloopiness, combined with the copious water and juices from the salad component, turn the protective bread shell into mush. The innards of the kebab plop from the gaping wound which inevitably opens along the spine of the bread and onto your already salad-strewn lap, so that the act of eating the kebab turns into a race against time to eat as much as you can before it completely disintegrates.

However, despite the fact that these fundamental shortcomings are patently obvious to anyone who has ever eaten a doener, there is no sign of any design innovations to improve the snack's ergonomics. The German doener is still made in the same fashion as it has been for the past three decades and will probably never change. After all, a national dish needs to conform to tradition.

October 2005

Copyright Expatica

Subject: doener kebab, German food, Inside Track, German culture

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