News"The doner kebab is part of the German identity"

"The doner kebab is part of the German identity"

Created: 8/29/2022, 4:47 p.m

„Der Erfolg wäre ohne die türkische Zuwanderung nicht denkbar.“
“Success would be inconceivable without Turkish immigration.” © Imago

The sociologist Eberhard Seidel on the cultural history of the doner kebab, racism – and the change to a noble dish.

Mr. Seidel, you have dealt intensively with the history of the kebab. Is it called doner kebab or doner kepap?

According to the dictionary, both are possible – depending on whether you use Arabic or Turkish spelling. I chose the Turkish spelling with a p for my book as a reminiscence of the people who made the doner kebab big in this country, namely immigrants from Turkey.

The Greeks know gyros, Asterix and Obelix grill wild boar over an open fire. What is special about the doner kebab?

Grilling on a vertical skewer. As early as the 1930s, there are reports of a master chef named Hamdi, who turned his meat skewer at lunchtime in Kastamonou in northern Turkey. In Bursa, the chef Iskender offered a doner kebab from 1867, with or without yoghurt. The Iskender family even patented it, which is why many cite Bursa as the place of origin of the doner kebab. But I would be careful…


The doner kebab is a result of long developments and culinary-cultural interactions. Around 1546, the Arabic scholar Taqiyiadin from Damascus, Syria, drew up sketches for a steam-powered kebab skewer. However, like Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines, the grill was probably never built during Taqiyiadin’s lifetime. History is never quite finished. But that shows: The idea of setting the spit on its feet has probably been around for a long time.

And who brought the doner kebab to Germany?

There is no clear answer to that. The association of Turkish doner kebab manufacturers in Europe has committed itself to Kadir Nurman, who in 1972 offered a doner kebab in his snack bar at Berlin’s Bahnhof Zoo. But the doner kebab in Germany is definitely older. As early as 1969, a man from Bursa offered a doner kebab in Reutlingen, Baden-Württemberg. However, he had not received a license for a snack bar and could only sell his doner kebab at district festivals. In Frankfurt, doner kebab was already on the menu in the “Bosporus” restaurant in 1960, albeit as a plate dish, not in quartered flatbread. Döner kebabs were probably already around in Germany before that. In Berlin, for example, there had been a Turkish restaurant in Charlottenburg since imperial times. However, these restaurants are not the cradle of the doner kebab as street food. They were much too elitist for that. The doner kebab as we know it, as a favorite food for people who are not so well off, experienced its breakthrough in Berlin in the 1970s.

What made the doner kebab so unbeatably attractive?

The doner kebab, as we know it today, did not spread in high culture, but in the marginalized classes of society. The place of birth is in Berlin-Kreuzberg. There was the perfect Kreuzberg mix there: a large migrant community that knew and consumed the doner kebab and was looking for new economic opportunities; an internationalist milieu of military service evaders, left and alternative scene, open to new things – also in terms of taste experiences. But there was also an industrial proletariat in Berlin in the 1970s that depended on a cheap snack that contained everything: from bread to meat to salad. The value for money at the doner kebab was unbelievably cheap. And has remained so to this day. This is how the doner kebab was able to start its triumphal march. First in inner-city immigrant areas and working-class districts such as Neukölln and the cities in the Ruhr area, then in university towns such as Tübingen, Freiburg and Würzburg. Then beyond Germany.

In terms of social history, the doner kebab owes its success to the oil crisis and failures in German integration policy. In what way?

The situation in the early 1970s was a special one. On the one hand, the people who have immigrated from Turkey since the recruitment agreement in 1961 have become increasingly self-confident. There were strikes against discrimination and for equal pay. The high point was the Ford strikes in Cologne in 1973. There were wild walkouts beyond the unions. The people also made it clear: They will stay. On the other hand, resentment and racism against the “guest workers”, as they were called at the time, grew – even in mainstream society. The economy faltered and there were layoffs. The federal government then imposed a recruitment ban in 1973. In Berlin, CDU interior senator Heinrich Lummer later even wanted to revoke the residence permit of unemployed immigrants if they could no longer finance themselves. In this situation, the immigrant population had to look for new economic opportunities and dared to flee into self-employment. Tailor shops, greengrocers and kebab shops emerged. People were simply forced to be self-sufficient. One thing is certain: the success of the doner kebab would be unthinkable without Turkish immigration to Germany.

And without the German health authorities. They were not familiar with the new court and initially left it unregulated. The industry finally acted itself and in 1989, in cooperation with the authorities and the “Berlin Traffic Opinion”, issued a kind of purity law. To what extent was the distance of the German authorities decisive?

There was no form for the doner kebab and no butchers’ guild. In this respect, people could start doing what they knew from home without any embarrassment. And they could also experiment wildly without official requirements. People have to like the doner kebab. That’s the bottom line. In this respect, it is exciting that the doner kebab celebrated its breakthrough at the end of the 1970s, when more and more hacks were used. That made the dish cheap, but it threatened to degenerate into a boulette on a skewer. But the Berliners liked it. At some point operators and meat producers had to act and protect Berliners from themselves and agreed on standards in 1989.

With small flaws?

The regulation came before the BSE scandal. Chicken or turkey, the basis for the chicken kebab, does not appear in it. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the doner kebab was able to start its triumphal march in the East, which made its own contribution – the Hawaii doner kebab with pineapple.

How did you personally come to the doner kebab?

Eberhard Seidel.
Eberhard Seidel. © Wolfgang Borrs

To the person and thing

Eberhard Seidel is a sociologist. In 1977 he came to Berlin from Franconia and quickly came across the doner kebab. His latest book “Döner. A Turkish-German cultural history” (März Verlag, 18 euros) deals with the long history of the meat bag. Seidel worked as a journalist for a long time, and since 2002 he has been managing director of the “School without Racism – School with Courage” initiative. He keeps his favorite doner kebab snack a secret. Only so much can be revealed: Of course he is in Berlin.

The doner kebab has been on the market in Germany for 50 years . This is how the association of Turkish doner kebab manufacturers in Europe sees it. But the story is far more complicated.

Döner kebab – literally rotating grilled meat – consists of beef, veal or (rarely) lamb, and since the BSE scandal has often also been made of poultry. Shawarma is the Arabic twin of kebab, with its own marinade. Gyros is the Greek variant of Mediterranean fusion cuisine made from grilled pork.

As a dish , doner kebabs have been spreading in the Turkish-Arabic region since the 19th century. One of the places of origin is the Turkish Bursa, where the chef Iskender created a doner kebab dish in 1867. From the end of the 1960s, the doner kebab from Berlin first conquered German and then European cuisine. The Association of Turkish Doner Kebab Manufacturers in Europe (Atdid) honors Kadir Nurman as the official founding father, who opened a doner kebab shop at Berlin’s Bahnhof Zoo in 1972. Today, the number of kebab stands in the country is estimated at around 18,000. r.p

I came to Berlin in 1977 and quickly ended up with the kebab shop. In 1988 I wrote my first doner kebab report for the city magazine “zitty”. At some point I noticed that the story of Turkish immigration, but also that of racism in Germany, can be told very well over a kebab.

In what way?

The cheap image of the doner kebab was transferred to Turkish immigrants. The doner kebab shops of the early years were also not very aesthetically pleasing. In addition to racism, classism also played a role: the cliché of poorly educated Turkish guest workers from rural Anatolia. Incidentally, this also led to Turkish intellectuals distancing themselves from kebabs. They repeatedly emphasized that Turkish culture offers more than just doner kebabs. Which of course is true. However, in my book I also argue that the doner kebab is such a wonderful thing and that immigrants and their descendants can be proud that they have given the Germans a new national dish.

Nevertheless, the term is used pejoratively. The series of murders by the right-wing extremist NSU was long known in the media as “kebab murders”…

The series of murders was long considered unsolved. But there was always such a thing as victim knowledge. There were certainly indications of possible right-wing extremist backgrounds from the Turkish community – at least since the nail bomb attack in Cologne in 2004. The investigative authorities have demonstrably not investigated this as it should have been. For a long time, a perpetrator-victim reversal took place.

Wörtlich bezeichnet Döner Kebap sich drehendes Grillfleisch.
Döner kebap literally means rotating grilled meat. © dpa

Will this media stereotype continue?

In a way yes. The kebab industry in Germany has long been very successful and also supplies neighboring countries with meat skewers. Turkish snack bars and restaurants in this country make more sales than the ten leading companies in system catering such as well-known burger chains combined. But when the meat scandal broke out in 2005, the media described it almost exclusively using the example of kebab snack bars, although it was organic Germans who circulated the rotten meat. Suddenly it was about the “Döner Mafia”. The fact that traditional German restaurants and beer cellars in Munich were also supplied with rotten meat was lost. Nobody spoke of the Leberkäs Gate or the Dirndl Mafia.

The image of the kebab has long since changed. US entrepreneur Elon Musk says his favorite food in Germany is the doner kebab. Is the once cheap dish now becoming a symbol of luxury like the oyster, which was once a source of protein for poor fishermen?

I think that the doner kebab is still the favorite dish of those who are not so well off financially. And he is the salvation of many party and clubgoers who, drunk at night at the kebab stand, long for something hearty to give their body salt. But the “Adlon” has also had the doner kebab on the menu in its lounge since 2018 – alongside currywurst and Wiener Schnitzel.

For a whopping 26 euros. What does this show us?

In any case, this shows that the doner kebab, which arose from an economic and socio-political emergency, has become a real success in a laborious process. Many people believe that the doner kebab is a Berlin invention. For Musk, the doner kebab is simply the German national dish. The doner kebab is now so deeply rooted in this country that it is firmly part of the German identity.

The kitchen is changing. Street food is elevated to art. The burger is refined with high-quality meat. How about the doner kebab?

There’s a trend here too. In Berlin-Mitte, Deniz Buchholz focuses on doner kebabs with truffles with “Kebap with attitude”, “Cihan Anadologlu in Munich serves doner kebabs made from Japanese Wagyu beef for 35 euros. But I think the doner kebab will remain the favorite dish of people who are not so well off financially.

And how do you feel about the vegan doner kebab?

It’s like wine without the alcohol.

Interview: Peter Riesbeck

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