LUEBECK, Germany - On a recent rainy night in this northern German port city, Sultan Palast is coming to life at the 5 o’clock rush. Workers exchange greetings with customers in German and Turkish as they shave paper-thin slices from rotating cones of skewered meat. Young couples and middle-aged men and women getting off work order “doners with everything’’ and take their seats, awaiting red wine, German beer, or tulip-shaped glasses of Turkish tea.
The doner kebab sandwich, though a relative newcomer on the country’s culinary landscape, has become as ubiquitous here as bratwurst. For travelers in search of good food, the doner is a must try.
Doner kebab in Turkish, like gyro in Greek, means “turned roast’’ and refers to the cone of seasoned meat - usually beef, veal, lamb, or chicken - rotating slowly on a vertical spit. In Turkey, doner kebab is a traditional dish that consists of thin cuts of lamb laid over rice or flatbread and steeped in garlicky yogurt sauce with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and lettuce on the side. It is served on a plate in modest, sit-down restaurants.
In Berlin in the early 1970s, Turkish “guest workers,’’ who had come to Germany during the prosperous era a decade before and were trying to make ends meet, had the idea to pack the crispy, succulent meat slices into a warm, thick loaf of Turkish bread. The sandwich evolved to include chopped tomatoes, onions, cabbage, and cucumber slices, topped with a large ladle of sauce, usually a garlicky yogurt sauce or a mildly spicy tomato sauce. The result is a tasty, robust, and quick sandwich that Germans of all ethnicities order for lunch, dinner, and after last call.
“It’s fast, but it also tastes good, it’s healthy, and it’s inexpensive,’’ says Ahmet Tetik, 46, who started working in Sultan Palast when his father, Hassan, opened the place in 1994. A regular doner there costs about $4.60 (prices at other establishments vary from $3 to $6), which is inexpensive for a meaty sandwich that packs a lot of taste.
The doner’s impact has been as much cultural as culinary, representing Turkish integration into Germany (ethnic Turks are playing on the national soccer team). Tetik estimates that 80 percent of his customers are German, including many regulars whom the family considers friends.
According to the Association of Turkish Doner Producers in Europe, there are about 15,500 doner spots in Germany, selling about 400 tons of meat daily and generating about $3.3 billion in revenue. That’s more than the country’s McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants combined. From the factories to the stands, Germany’s doner industry employs about 60,000 people.
Like other vendors, the Tetiks initially prepared the bread and meat at home. In 1999, the family farmed out the meat production to a doner processor in Berlin that prepares and seasons the meat according to the Tetiks’ recipe. Tetik estimates they sell about 1,100 pounds of doner kebabs per week.
Most doner cafes also make their own sauces. Yogurt is seasoned with dill and garlic, while the spicy sauce is a tomato and yogurt mixture with garlic, paprika, and chili.
Doners were originally served from small stalls, snack stands, and shipping containers. While over-the-counter stands are still common, many establishments now offer seating and occupy some of the best storefronts in the center of medieval towns and bustling cities.
An exotic exception to the barebones norm, Sultan Palast’s second-floor dining space is decorated with Turkish lamps, paintings, and other ornaments, as well as a communal table with floor-cushion seating. “We thought it would be a nice touch of home,’’ says Tetik, whose family’s story is similar to other doner restaurateurs in Germany.
In 1969, Hassan Tetik went from the Turkish capital of Ankara to Luebeck and got a job as an iron worker in the city’s port. A few years later he opened a small vegetable market and then the doner cafe with his wife, Nazli. Four sons worked there after school or their day jobs. “We had success because we’ve been working here since we were young,’’ says Ahmet Tetik.
Tetik’s parents are now retired and spend half the year in Turkey. When they’re in Germany, they come in on Sundays to work. Tetik’s mother prepares the Turkish specialty manti, hand-rolled dumplings filled with juicy ground beef balls - like tiny ravioli - topped with a light tomato and yogurt sauce.
The second generation isn’t as enthusiastic about putting their children to work after school. Tetik tells his two children, 17 and 11, not to come in. “I want my kids to study, to get their education,’’ he says.
“Then if they want to work here, they can.’’