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