Der Döner: Turning point of the turning spit
Döner must be the most worldwide known Turkish food. It is definitely the most popular street food in Turkey, equally popular in several other countries from England to France, from Greece to Israel, from Mexico to Germany, sometimes disguised under other names, sometimes dressed in other fashions. It became the Mexican ‘Al Pastor’ filled into a taco, it is ‘Gyros’ in Greece, and many parts of the world know it with the name ‘Shawarma’ the Middle Eastern version. Döner adapts to cultures, and whatever it becomes, or wherever it pops up, it turns out to be a hit. Döner is loved by the masses.
A feast in Ottoman times usually meant whole pit-roasted lambs cooked in vertical ovens dug in the ground or lambs roasted on spits over an open fire. But of course roasting a whole lamb is fiddly, requires time and facilities, and is not easy to portion to sell in equally satisfying portions. Who gets the better parts of the meat will be questionable and it is bound to cause complaint among customers. Best is to make it as democratic as possible so everyone gets a good share. That is my own explanation on how döner came into being, and the hidden secret in its popularity. To make döner, tender thin slices of seasoned meat are stacked onto each other, all skewered to a vertical spit to form a huge cone, and cooked by spinning slowly facing a low-heat source. It is truly a brilliant invention of a vertical rotisserie. The beautifully char-grilled surface of the meat-cone is literally shaved off, cut in the thinnest slivers possible and tucked into bread or rolled in soft flat bread.
Turkish people have a strangely mixed feeling about the ubiquitous döner. They are torn between boasting about it, and sometimes condescending the so-called ‘kebab culture’, as if it belongs to lowly crowd. The reality is in Turkey people love a quick fix of a döner take away every now and then, if not on a daily basis, no doubt about it. More often then not, they also like to enjoy a full sit down treat of it, in the form of döner-pilav, slivers of shaved meat on top of buttery white rice pilaf, or the more elaborate famous İskender Kebab, a form of döner served on a bed of soft pillowy pide bread, doused with melted butter and tomato sauce. Though it is so deeply part of our food culture, when it comes to talking about the Turkish cuisine in general, the dilemma surfaces. Turkish people always like to lament how Turkish food is not recognized in the world, how underrated it is and that it deserves to be better known.
And then there are endless debates on what we should be doing to promote it, and the start of the discussion is always the following sentence: “They only know us with kebab!”
My response is usually on the controversial side, I insist that we must not be ashamed of our beloved kebab, but on the contrary, we should cherish its worldwide popularity. However, there is a problem. Döner belongs to the streets; it has always been like that, so you need to have a corner shop nearby to enjoy it. T is true that we now have deep-frozen already cooked and sliced versions to be tossed in the and for a quick fix, but it is never the same. There is no way you can make your own, first it requires equipment, furthermore it needs a crowd to feed, it is hardly fit for a dinner for two. But then we sometimes have it in big garden parties or al-fresco weddings where a döner master is hired bringing along his döner with all the set-up and an apprentice or two to prepare the portions to hand out to queuing guests.
Now there can be a twist to the fate of döner; it might be the next party hit, a totally new way of BBQ experience, probably stemming from Germany. Döner is already widely popular in Germany; it has become the emblematic icon of multicultural urban life of Berlin to where Turkish ‘Gastarbeiter’ immigrant workers brought along back in the 1960s. Berlin was a major destination of Turkish workers as it was kind of land-locked within boundaries of East Germany, and Kreuzberg, the lowly neighborhood just near the grim Berlin wall where no sane German would dwell was their new address. After the reunification of East and West Berlin and the demolition of Berlin Wall, Kreuzberg was suddenly in the middle of everything and turned into the hippest quarter in town; and needless to say, now it is the epicenter of Berlin döner culture.
Now there is a newcomer to the döner scene in Germany; a massive book “Einmal Mit Alles, Der Döner und Seine Verwandten”, written by Cihan Anadoluoğlu. I have been a remote fan of Anadoluoğlu as a talented and creative bartender; his beautifully crafted cocktail book ‘Bar Bible’ is a must-have reference inspiration for all cocktail aficionados, well we’ll come to that in another article. But all of a sudden, out of the blue, he came up with this colossal book in praise of döner, which seems to belong to chic coffee tables rather than to street food counters. The book contains several recipes that can be described as modern variations on the theme, but more interestingly it gives step-by-step instructions on how to make a home made version, either in the rather ambitious way of stacking your own mid-sized döner to grill in the backyard, or making a quickie pan-tossed version.
Being a Turkish origin German citizen from Munich, Anadoluoğlu proudly embraces his dual background in Turkish and German cultures, and brings a totally new take on one of the most popular fast food in Germany rivaling Wurst. The book features about 50 recipes, including chicken, lamb, and turkey meat versions, as well as vegetarian and vegan options, several sauces, marinates, condiments, spice mixes, and even bread recipes essential for a successful döner. The book is attractively printed by Callwey with the mouthwatering photos of Daniel Esswein, making one to drool over the pages. Anadoluoğlu says he tried to include also a bit of the background, where does it come from, döner in arts (movies, theatre etc. ), döner in culture, döner in Germany and in Turkey, making the book a good read beyond the recipes. The recipes are fun with even more fun names, sometimes in Turkish, sometimes in German, making it ven more fun to browse through.
‘Einmal Mit Alles’ is book that may prove to be a new turning point of the turning spit, and make ‘Der Döner’ a great hit of summer parties, with more and more Germans deciding to remain home for vacation in fear of COVID-19.