Half a century ago, no one in Germany would have predicted that a meat dish from Turkey would become one of the best-selling “fast foods” in Germany. But in the 1960s thousands of so-called “guest workers” from Turkey began arriving in West Germany to fill low-wage jobs as Germany’s postwar economy began to grow and the need for more workers increased. Many of them stayed in Germany, raising families there and, in time, opening small businesses of their own, often to serve the local Turkish communities, from big cities like Berlin to small towns in rural areas.
Nostalgia for a taste of “home,” combined with good business acumen, led many Turks to open street stands and small cafés serving döner kebabs—stacks of seasoned mutton or lamb pieces cooked on a vertical spit rotating next to a charcoal fire. (Hence the term “döner,” which means “turning.”) The cooked meat is then sliced from the top of the spit to the bottom and tucked inside a split-open, yeasty flatbread, or nestled inside a wrap of very thin flatbread, along with some shredded lettuce and cabbage, sliced onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, a choice of garlicky yogurt sauce or spicy red pepper sauce, and an optional sprinkling of dried hot pepper flakes to kick up the taste.