Doner Kebab (aka Doner Kebap) has only been available in Germany for 50 years. But, in that time it has become the most popular street food in the country with over 16,000 places offering the meal of meat and veggies wrapped in a pita. And, Berlin is the epicenter of the Doner Kebab.
Doner Kebab origin story
After WWII there was a labor shortage in Germany. Because unemployment was high in southern Europe, immigrant workers, known as Gastarbeiter, came to Germany. Eventually, the Gastarbeiter program included people from Turkey.
Turkish Gastarbeiter brought their families with them along with food and customs from their homeland. One of these dishes is the so-called Doner Kebab. Similar to a gyro, meat (traditionally lamb) is rotated vertically on a spit. With a knife, the meat is shaved onto a plate.
It’s impossible to pinpoint when and where the first Doner Kebab came to Germany. Some point to 1969 when a Turkish father and son started selling something quite similar to Doner Kebab in Reutlingen, Germany. But, it is highly likely that Turkish immigrants were making some form of Doner Kebab in their homes or for social gatherings well before then.
Doner Kebab was popularized in Berlin starting in 1972. Kadir Nurman set up a Doner Kebab stand in West Berlin’s Zoo Station train terminal. From there, the portable meal took off and now over €2.5 billion Doner Kebabs are sold in Germany each year.
The first Doner Kebabs in Germany were a simple affair. Just some meat on a pita with onions and some lettuce.
Modern Doner Kebab
The modern Doner Kebab has evolved over the years.
Today, meat like chicken, beef, and veal are offered in addition to the traditional lamb. Often, chicken and beef are substituted because they are cheaper than lamb.
In addition to the traditional sliced onions and lettuce, there are lots of different toppings available on Doner Kebab. Tomatoes, pickles, and peppers are now common.
Lots of places will add raw cabbage to their Doner Kebab, a practice that is frowned upon by some.
One of the most important elements of a Doner Kebab is the sauce.
Normally, there are two kinds of sauce for your Doner Kebab; white and red.
White sauce has mayonnaise or yogurt (or both) with garlic added for a punch. This sauce is called Kräuter (herbs) because parsley, chives, or some other herbs are added to the creamy sauce.
Red sauce is hot (Scharf) and chile based.
The best Doner Kebab joints make their own sauce.
Where to get Doner Kebab in Berlin
There’s over 16,000 places that sell Doner Kebab in Germany, so picking one can be difficult. Here’s a couple of the best.
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap
Far and away the most popular place to get Doner Kebab in Berlin. Even late at night the line can seem endless. Most Berliners would laugh at waiting in line for 45 minutes for a Doner Kebab, but social media and guidebooks have made Mustafa’s a bucket list destination for many tourists.
Mustafa’s has grilled veggies on their Doner Kebabs, which is a nice change of pace compared to the usual raw or pickled veggies. Plus, they have some good goat cheese as a topping.
If you’re looking for the spot where the Turkish population of Berlin gets their Doner Kebab, head to Imren. Supposedly, they marinate their beef in milk and lamb fat which makes it extra tender.
Tadim might just be at the top of the heap for Doner Kebab in Berlin. They use veal made with a secret blend of spices. Unlike most Doner Kebab restaurants, Tadim makes their own bread and sauce.
And, Tadim isn’t just a takeaway stand. They are a sit-down restaurant with other great menu items like lahmacuns a sort of Turkish pizza.
Vegetarian Doner Kebab
Berlin is a very friendly vegetarian city. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate with Doner Kebab.
There are some places that offer so-called vegetarian Doner Kebab in addition to their meat-based options. But, cross-contamination is a problem. The same tongs that are used to grab the lamb is also used to put veggies on the pita. I’ve seen bits of beef dropped into the lettuce and onion tray.
So, if you’re a strict vegetarian, you’ll need to be specific about your needs which isn’t always easy at a fast food spot where you don’t speak the language.
On the other hand, Vöner is a 100% vegetarian restaurant. They make a great Doner Kebab.