In Berlin, I fell in love with the Turkish döner kebab at a little takeout place near my hotel. Similar to a gyro, these overflowing sandwiches were topped with all sorts of salads, fresh vegetables and sauces and served on a warm, crispy flatbread. I've never found anything quite like it in the U.S., but I've got some ideas for a homemade version that incorporates some of my favorite elements.
At the end of my junior year of college, I took a short study trip to Germany and spent most of the time in Berlin. During the day, our group kept a tight schedule, which included many lovely meals. But in the evenings, we could do a little exploring on our own, which was always the most exciting time. On one of our first nights in Berlin, my roommate and I wandered into a Turkish takeout place near our hotel.
I recognized the towering pieces meat on rotating spits, which I'd seen in gyro joints back home, but what really caught my eye was a glass case filled with colorful salads and a variety of sauces – curry, herb, chili, yogurt. The sandwiches they served were indeed similar to a gyro, but here they were called döner, or döner kebab. I ordered a chicken döner and was delighted to find that I could have any of those salads and sauces tucked into my sandwich. I had mine loaded up with nearly all of them.
The bread, too, was similar to the pitas I'd eaten at home, but it was a little chewier on the inside and crispier on the outside, possibly even fried.
With the first bite, I was hooked. I was surprised to like it so much because I'd never been a big fan of gyros, but the sauces, salads and crispy bread made all the difference for me. I found my way back to that spot as many times as I could for the rest of the trip.
After I returned home, I spent several years on the lookout for a similar sandwich, but every "döner" I found came with little or no sauces or salads, and was served on non-crispy pita bread. It turns out, the version of the döner I loved so much was actually invented right there in Berlin by a Turkish immigrant – Mahmut Aygun served his first doner kebab in 1971 at his Hassir restaurant. Known as the "kebab king," he passed away earlier this year.
Germany has a large Turkish immigrant population, which has led to the widespread popularity of döner kebab there.
To make an exact version at home would require a rotating spit, and quite a large amount of meat – and often, a mixture of meats is used. But you could easily make a similar version with grilled chicken, beef or lamb, or even a vegetarian version with some chickpeas in place of the meat. Like I said, for me, it's all about the salads, sauces and crispy bread.
For the bread, I'd brush both sides of a pita generously with oil and heat on the grill or in a skillet until it's nice and crispy. Here are some suggestions for toppings:
Curry Yogurt Sauce from Fine Cooking
Roasted Garlic-Herb Sauce from Bon Appétit
Salads and Fresh Toppings
Cucumber, Onion, and Tomato Salad from Food Network
Shredded red or green cabbage
Wikipedia: Döner Kebab
Telegraph: The Man who Invented the Doner Kebab has Died
Related: Leftovers Recipe: Lamb Pitas with Cucumber Mint Tzatziki
(Image: Flickr user Alex Kehr, licensed under Creative Commons)