Döner kebabs are a type of Turkish dish similar to the Greek gyro or the Arab shawarma made with seasoned meat shaved from a vertical rotisserie, a style of cooking that dates back to the Ottomans. They are highly popular as a late-night snack or quick meal on the go throughout much of Europe, but how did they get here?
In Germany alone, döner kebab sales reach a staggering more than 3.5 billion euros each year, and 600 tons of döner meat are consumed each day, making it one of the most popular fast food items in the country.
With many world-famous dishes of cultural significance in multiple countries, there’s a lot of lore surrounding the origin of the döner kebab, with multiple individuals and cultures disputing responsibility for its invention. With Turks comprising the largest ethnic group of non-German origin in the country, many believe that the döner kebab was actually first created in Berlin by a Turkish guest worker named Kadir Nurman in 1972. He sold his first döner kebab in West Berlin across from Bahnhof Zoo.
At 26, Nurman emigrated from Turkey to Stuttgart in 1960 as part of a major initiative in West Germany at the time to increase its labor force. Six years later, Nurman came to Berlin to work in the printing business but quickly noticed that there weren’t many substantial options for busy German workers looking to eat lunch on the go.
Deriving his idea for the döner kebab as we know it today from the typical meal of Turkish royalty consisting of meat skewers served on a plate with rice and vegetables, Nurman wanted to make this tasty dish more portable. Thus, he simply wrapped these ingredients in a kind of bread known as durum, and voila! The döner was born.
Of course, this neatly packaged story is often disputed.
Some say that the döner was incepted in Turkey, but the chairman of the Turkish Döner Production in Europe is vehement that the döner was, indeed, invented in Germany. Variations certainly do exist in Turkey, and many will attest to the fact that the döner has existed in different forms (and under various names) in the Middle East for ages.
Others who claim to have first created the döner include Nevzat Salim, a Turkish man who alleges that he sold the first ones in 1969 in the town of Reutlingen out of a stand operated with his son. Mehmet Aygün, a fellow Berliner, also says he created the first döner in 1971.
Either way, the presence of the döner kebab in Germany has served as an important vehicle for the country’s large Turkish population to successfully integrate into European life, and it’s certainly influential on the country’s food culture. In fact, all this talk of döner kebabs is enough to make a person hungry, and the famed Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap is open till 2 am.