The Dying Döner: Why Berlin’s Beloved Street Food Is Disappearing

An ongoing transformation of food around Turkish integration in Berlin.

Living independently in Berlin isn’t all that hard. Everything is within biking distance and everyone speaks English. The city has all the culture and history you could ever ask for, but still retains a cozy, residential vibe, and never gets overwhelming. Its population is diverse and world cuisines are eagerly absorbed into the city’s fabrics. But when 10 p.m. comes around and you’ve finally finished a hard day of work, there’s nothing you’d appreciate more than a sizable portion of spiced grilled meat, fresh vegetables, and garlic sauce all wrapped up neatly in a bundle. Behold the magic of the Berlin Döner Kebap.

döner
Berlin Kebap. Photo by Alana Harris on Unsplash

Originally from Turkey, döner refers to meat that is cooked on a vertical rotating skewer — döner meaning “revolving” in Turkish. Döners are quite big and eye-catching, with the surface of the meat slowly glistening under the blaze as it turns. Imagine walking down a simple residential street on the way home and catching the whiffs of half a dozen of these, one after another. This is exactly the experience of the Kreuzberg neighborhood, a district to the south of central Berlin that houses the highest concentration of German Turks.

In the 1960s, amid a booming economy, West Germany began absorbing Turkish immigrants by the hundreds of thousands. These immigrants were mostly “between 18 and 45, at the prime of their labor capacity,” and became a great asset to the country’s growing labor demand. West Germany’s immigration policy succeeded. German businesses found Turkish immigrants to be reliable, productive, and compliant. These were people who couldn’t afford to cause trouble and be sent back home, at a time when their homeland was roiling in economic and political turmoil.

Mustafa Kebap Berlin
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap, one of the most popular places to get a kebap sandwich in all of Berlin. PHOTO: Lyon Nishizawa

While the kebab (grilled meat) was a common staple in Turkey since the 1800s, the döner (kebab in a sandwich) came much later. The alleged inventor of the döner is by the name of Kadir Nurman. Nurman himself was a Turkish immigrant who lived in West Germany for work, when he noticed that there was a serious lack of convenient lunch options on the streets. This spurred him to leave his job and become an entrepreneur, setting up his own imbiss (Turkish: “snack bar”) to provide Turkish-style meat sandwiches that no one knew they needed. Throughout the 70s and 80s, kebap houses appeared all over Germany like wildfire.

Nurman paved the way of the triumphant ascent of Turks in Germany. Döners, for the Turkish immigrant population, symbolized a break from temporary work contracts and an entry into a field of entrepreneurship and personal agency. Soon, many people would set up their own döner shops while the market picked up fierce competition — sellers would do everything to lower their prices, which included using minced meat instead of having it traditionally cooked on a rotisserie, as well as using binding chemical additives. Alarm grew among German Turks who saw their hearty, homeland meals being stretched and pounded into tasteless commodities. In 1991, the German government heard their voices and standardized the basic ingredients and composition of all döners sold in Germany. The döner was, at this moment, officially recognized by their host country to be a valuable good, something that had to be cherished and protected.

The focus of döner marketing shifted from just making everything cheaper to exploring more creative tactics. Many döner businesses opted to selling a “folklorish” image of Turkey. Imbisses would decorate themselves in colorful lanterns and trinkets brought over from Turkey to construct a distinct, if overly exoticized, “Turkish” atmosphere. This sold well. Foods and atmospheres from strange, faraway lands were quite attractive to the contemporary West German audience.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the merger of West and East Germany, however, the döner business would do a blunt 180 turn in the other direction. While they used to rely on the commodification on the Turkish image, imbisses soon began to dissociate themselves from their cultural origin and diversify their products. Just as Germans had grown quite fond of the exotic, Turkish döner — a rank or two higher than currywurst in both nutrition and fulfillment — döner businesses were making all kinds of changes to redesign the food as less “Turkish.” Imbisses transformed into American-like fast food chains, taking on names, such as: Mckebap and McKing, with logos suggestive of a rejection of a nationalist brand image.

An imbiss in Berlin
An Imbiss spotted on Kastanienallee in Berlin. The logo looks like an upside-down M from McDonald’s. PHOTO: Lyon Nishizawa

Just why German Turks felt like de-Turkey-fying their businesses is a point of concern. Around 3 million German Turks presently reside in Germany, and they are the country’s least integrated immigrant group, being more likely than other immigrants to be poorly educated, underpaid, and unemployed. This is a result of decades of neglect by the German government. In the 60s, Turkish immigrants were taken in under a “rotation clause,” which restricted an immigrant’s stay in Germany up to only two years. Just the word rotation suggests something disposable, reproducible, cheap – a toilet roll rotating to give out more paper. In reality, returning to Turkey seemed less and less feasible for these immigrants, which led many to stay indefinitely. Despite the introduction of a whole new, permanent ethnic group in German society, Germany never gave their ethnic integration policy a chance to revise itself. Thus, half a decade since the beginning of their inflow, German Turks remain the most marginalized people in one of the world’s most progressive nations.

“The problem is to change the atmosphere, to offer a Turkish specialty without our atmosphere, to present it in a modern way. I want döner to go further,” says one imbiss owner in an interview. “I want to show that Turks are also capable of setting up good business and running it.” Paradoxically, to show that a Turk is capable, one must reject his or her identity as a Turk.

The döner, as a food, is as popular as ever. Late into the night, vendors swipe their sweaty foreheads with rolled-up sleeves, the signs overhead glowing in the dark, of which they usually opt for vivid colors like red and green. The menu is straightforward enough that it’s printed directly onto the flaky plaster wall — a pita sandwich, a dürüm wrap, a veggie option, perhaps a side of fries? White-collar workers and bone-tired students climb out of the subway stairs and head straight to the light. Rummaging for change in their pockets, some squint to count out the cents while others shrug and tip the excess. All step out with a reflective, aluminum-wrapped meal in hand, its heat warming their fingers that have already started to grow numb in September. They bite into it without a moment to breathe, and nine times out of ten, a shred of lettuce floats to the ground.

Yet, the döner dies, a little every day, shedding itself of invaluable culture and history because no one is looking at it in the eye. Popular and unnoticed, unnoticed and popular — it merges into the global fast food market until one day, it’ll be no different than a Big Mac. Maybe just a little bit more delicious.

Cooking döner in Berlin
Cooking döner in Berlin. PHOTO: Lyon Nishizawa

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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