Panorama of the Week: Every Döner Tells a Story, Don’t It?

Istanbul is like Kreuzberg, but less Turkish.

– A Berlin cabbie puts the city’s Turkish neighborhood in perspective.

Take a walk down any street in Kreuzberg, Berlin and you’ll find scads of döner shops offering shaved, spiced meat (usually lamb) served inside rolled flatbread or in a bread pocket. At a distance, all döner shops look similar – meat sears away on a giant spindle, colorful salads await, and a few guys of Turkish origin zip around putting it all together.

360-Degree Panorama: Inside Tekbir Döner, in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood

panorama directions

But looks can be deceiving: every döner shop – and indeed every döner – is unique.

Döner components:

1) Type of meat

Typically you’ll find pressed lamb on the spindle, but if you search Berlin deeply enough, you might find a place that serves veal instead. Veal on a spindle may look a little funky — dark here, pinkish there — but fear not for the meat is the real deal.

Bilal, one of the employees of Tekbir Döner, explained to us why Tekbir’s style of döner is unique: “Our meat is real meat. It’s 100% veal and we cook it all ourselves. This place has been making döner like this for 30 years. Only we and one other place do it like this.”

2) Machine or hand-cut?

Some places, like Hasir Restaurant (supposedly where döner sandwiches were first served up, way back in 1971) cut all their döner meat by hand with a knife. Other shops use a device that looks one part hand-sander and one part barber-shop shaver. In either case, the goal: to slice the döner meat as thinly as possible. Purists may contend that hand-cut is better, but to us taste is more about the meat than the instrument used to cut it.

3) Bread

Most shops offer an option of im brot (literally “in bread”) where the fillings are stuffed into a triangle of Turkish fladdenbrot (flatbread), or a durum döner, where the sandwich is made with a lavash-style flatbread that sort of looks like a tortilla.

The durum flatbread usually goes seamlessly from the oven to to the döner master. In other words, freshly made. If the master is really feeling it that day, he pats the meat spindle with the durum to dab it with a bit of flavor (and grease) before piling on the fillings.

Delicious Döner at Didim Restaurant in Neukölln - Berlin, Germany
Inside a Durum Döner in Berlin

4) Salad

The standard döner salad toppings on offer: finely cut tomatoes, red onions and lettuce. The balance of veggies is what makes the difference: too much onion and your döner is out of balance, too little and you miss that bite. The goal is for the fresh and crunchy vegetables to compliment the tender meat and fresh bread. Not to mention, a few vegetables lend the body a cleansing service.

5) Sauces

For us, sauces can make or break a döner experience. Usually, you’ll have your choice between yogurt garlic-herb sauce and hot sauce, if not others. But if the sauce is too sweet, your döner falls out of balance. Too salty and you are parched mid-meal. Somewhere in between with a bit of heat is just about right.

6) The People, The Story

These are the guys, the döner and flatbread masters behind it all. Many take to their trade like artists. Ask around and you’ll find some were born in Turkey while others of Turkish origin were born in Germany.

When we spoke to Bilal, he explained that he had been working at Tekbir Döner for only a few months. “I’m from Anatolia. I learned English there since I worked as a tour guide. I studied in Germany, but I am in Berlin only a couple of months. I like it, but I miss my home, Turkey.”

As one friend in Berlin joked, “It’s difficult to have a bad interaction at a döner place in Kreuzberg.

I agree – even with my bumbling, non-existent German language skills, I was always treated with a smile and patience — not to mention conversation regarding life, where I was from, and how long I was in Berlin.

—–

The perfect döner is all a matter taste. Everyone has his own angle, his own preference, his own inner döner.

If you consider yourself a döner veteran, do you have a favorite döner place in Berlin or elsewhere in the world? And what makes the döner so special?

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    When I studied in Freiburg, Germany, I had a doner at least three times a week. I tried different places during my first month and then picked a favorite and stuck with it for the rest of the year. Oh, how I loved that place. And not just because their doners were the best in my opinion. The staff was always so friendly, and I credit them with really helping my German along. I always felt more comfortable trying out newly acquired phrases and such with them than I did with my German classmates and roommates. I would so love to be having lunch there right now.

    On another note, I found that while doners definitely differ by shop, they also differ by region. It was a subtle thing, but the doners I had in Berlin (at various different places) were definitely different than the doners I had in Freiburg.

  2. says

    You are making me very hungry. Great rundown of one of the best travel foods out there. I love coming across a good doner kabob. Can’t wait to make it to the Middle East someday.

  3. says

    @Natalie: I definitely understand – too much of a good thing is just too much. Definitely better to hold yourself back from overdosing.

    @Anil: We’ll definitely need to try that one next time we return to Berlin. What was it about the doner that made it so special?

    @Theresa: The staff are so much a part of the doner experience. I’m not surprised with your experience trying out new German phrases – I think there is an additional level of patience and willingness to help as almost everyone has gone through the process of learning German so they can empathize. Interesting how the doners were different in Freiburg. We just spent the last couple of days in Vienna and although there is a sizable Turkish community here, the doners are just not the same as Berlin.

    @Adam: Doners are the perfect travel food – quick, fresh, easy and usually very inexpensive.

  4. says

    The yogurt and a “special” spicy red sauce really added a unique flavor. The doner was also being constantly drenched in an oil to ensure it was moist; pleasantly overwhelming for the taste buds :)

  5. says

    If I had to match any taste to my memories of traveling across Europe, it would be that of a delicious kebab. Looking at your photos is making my mouth water! And it’s true, I don’t think we ever had a bad interaction in any of the kebab places we visited throughout all of Western Europe!

  6. says

    @Anil: Sauces can completely make or break a döner experience. Unfortunately, it seems like some places like their sauces sweet. I’ve added this place to our list for the next time we return to Berlin, which I know we will.

    @Kyle: Kebabs really are a perfect travel food – tasty, easy, cheap. Although, I do have to admit that after Berlin the döners in Vienna and Prague didn’t taste quite as good.

  7. says

    It’s been so long since I was in Berlin that I can’t remember my favourite place for a doner. Though I’ve gone off onto a kind of salivatory tangent thinking about wurst…

    In London, I like proper shish over a mangal barbecue — there’s a great one in Arcola Street, East London.

  8. says

    @Theodora: Great to see you here and thanks for your comment. I imagine your favorite doner place in Berlin, whichever one it was, is probably still there. They look like they have a bit more staying power than your average here-today, gone-tomorrow restaurant.

    As for wurst, I wonder which is your favorite. When we wrote more broadly about our eating experiences in Berlin, we sampled few of the best wursts…and not just the famous currywurst, but the more adventurous blutwurst and leberwurst:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2010/10/best-cheap-eats-berlin/

    Happy travels, happy eating!

  9. Allison says

    The best doner I ever had was in Thailand, from a little stand in the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The woman who worked there remembered us, the ‘farangs’ who ate all of her food, the next time we went back to the Market. And, we hunted for her stand for 2 hours the second time around.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>