Dresden native Thomas Sauermann chanced upon his first doner kebab sandwich in 1990, while visiting Berlin with his parents. Only 11 at the time, to Mr. Sauermann it was love at first bite.
"It was absolutely delicious," he recalls. Now nine years later, he estimates he gobbles down four a week, and is part of a generation of younger Germans helping turn the sandwich into a national staple.
Doner kebab, (turned meat) is a traditional Turkish dish. But in its fast-food incarnation, it is enjoying phenomenal popularity in Germany, becoming what pizza and tacos have become to Americans.
In Turkey, doner kebab consists of thin cuts of lamb laid over warm "fladenbrot," a round flat loaf similar to pita, and steeped in tsatsiki sauce, with tomatoes, onions, and lettuce on the side. It is usually served in sit-down restaurants.
In Germany, "doner," has taken on a sandwich form, and is sold from small booths catering to takeout customers. The meat is slowly roasted on a vertical spit, sliced almost paper-thin, and then stuffed into a triangular piece of fladenbrot, topped by the vegetables. For about 60 cents more, a few slabs of feta cheese are included.
The sauces - garlic or tomato-based and ranging from tangy to sharp - often vary. "The different doner booths make their own sauces according to their own recipes," says Tuncay Zulkaflu, owner of Knig Doner in Dresden.
What makes "Istanbul Doner," another doner booth in Dresden and two-time winner of a magazine-sponsored survey for the city's best doner, so popular? "The sauces," answers a worker there. "It is a very special recipe, but it is a secret, so I can't say [what it is]. The doner provides a satisfying meal and, at about $3, is cheap. "It is fast, it tastes good, and it makes you full," says Frank Wuensche, ticking off the attributes that have made doner a popular fixture in German society.
There are an estimated 9,300 doner vendors in Germany. Some sell from simple metal containers, and others from booths quaintly decorated with Turkish paintings and wall-ornaments, playing the music of Turkish pop-stars. Open at midmorning, doner booths bustle with business at lunch and dinner, and stay open late into the night to feed hungry revelers.
As far as the doner's place on the German snack circuit, "It is equal to the bratwurst or bockwurst," says Uwe Stuhrberg, editor at Sax Magazine, which conducted the doner surveys.
According to a 1998 study on doner by the Turkish Studies Center at Essen University, the average German eats eight doners per year. Not bad for a sandwich developed less than thirty years ago, when Turkish "guest workers" in Germany, who found themselves unemployed in the midst of the '70s economic crisis, starting selling doners to support their families. Back then, vendors prepared the meat themselves and sold it from street corners.
It remained mainly a mom-and-pop industry until German reunification, when vendors tapped into the East German market.
"Since the fall of the wall, it became an explosion," says Ahmet Basbug, owner of the Berlin Doner Factory. Established in 1996, it was the first exclusively doner-producing factory built to meet strict EU health regulations, and today enjoys an annual turnover of $8 million while employing 50 people.
There are now more than 100 factories producing 300 tons of the beehive-shaped cuts of lamb and veal daily. The industry employs about 33,000 people and accounts for an annual turnover of about $600 million - more than all of Germany's McDonald's and Burger Kings combined. "Doner kebab is at its economic high point now," said Dr. Faruk Sen, author of the Essen study. He sees doner drive-ins as the next stage of development.
For many Germans, their first doner purchase was their first contact with their immigrant neighbors. "It is a bridge between the two cultures," says Basbug, pointing to the German-Turkish contact that occurs over doner purchases every day.
Stuhrberg however, is more skeptical. "I don't think people who eat doners have especially good contact with Turks."
Will doner duplicate its success elsewhere? Basbug already exports to France, Holland, and Denmark, and recently signed a contract with a South African meat wholesaler to produce doner kebab there.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society