by Melissa von Mayrhauser
Kraut shifts to kebab very suddenly in central Munich. Just south of the Hauptbahnhof on Goethestraße, biergartens disappear and small Turkish restaurants spring up in their place. These cafés offer the Döner Kebab—Turkish for “rotating spit”—a spicy lamb and yogurt burger.
Turkish salted meats and German sweet rolls vie for attention in this neighborhood, and the combination of flavors expresses contemporary culture in Deutschland. While distinctive Turkish supermarkets and shops suggest resistance to assimilation, Turkish-within-German cuisine schematizes a more complex negotiation. In fact, the Döner Kebab is not a Turkish import at all, but merely a reformulation of traditional Turkish ingredients. Mahmut Aygun, a Turkish immigrant to Germany, invented the Döner Kebab in 1970s Berlin after changing the carbohydrates—he substituted pita bread for rice. Now many restaurants use buns.
A robust spit of cured lamb meat rotates behind the counter, which the restauranteur shaves and places onto bread. A hamburger bun—itself the result of German and American culinary convergence—frames the Turkish flavors. The short-order chef adds plain, gooey yogurt, perhaps to neutralize the lamb’s saltiness. Lettuce and tomato complete a wreath of vegetables around the meat.
All of these components make the meal fun to eat—and especially to watch friends eat —as a layer of salt builds on their lips and pieces of the sandwich fall out at random. It is a challenge just to keep it together and to prevent yogurt from touching one’s face while talking.
The neighborhood also changes the experience of eating the kebab. It is possible suddenly to feel underdressed, for example. While consuming my Döner Kebab, I realized that I had bare legs; I was sitting next to a man wearing a boubou from North Africa, a flowing white robe, and I was one of the only women in sight without a hijab. I also often heard afternoon prayers nearby and tasted Middle Eastern candies after my food.
The Döner Kebab is one Turkish immigrant’s response to the fast-paced German urban lifestyle and is a symbol of culinary unity between two distinct cultural heritages. Eating this kind of Kebab in this community struck me as quite a bargain for 3.50 euros!