The Best German Street Food Sandwich Ever: The Döner
During my many travels to Germany, I always eat a döner. For me, it is the perfect sandwich. A wonderful combination of crunchy bread, grilled meat, tangy sauce, and crispy vegetables. Quite possibly the most popular fast food in Germany, even more popular than a bratwurst, the döner is purely street food.
Originally Turkish street vendor fare that found a large, hungry, and young consumer base in Berlin, the sandwich has now pervaded every city and town in Germany. Often compared to Greek gyros, they are somewhat more complex and vary from place to place, yet similar all the same, much like a hamburger that can be quite different and yet alike.
The meat is often chicken or pork, but lamb, turkey, and even some beef is available. Each shop is different and has what the owner deems important. One can simply ask for a mix of meats as well. Layers of meat are marinated with garlic, rosemary, oregano, other herbs and spices, and then skewered onto a long spit. The entire spit rotates vertically near an open grill. Most vendors use gas vents, some use electric coils, but some old contraptions even use real wood. The meat spins on the spit, slowly cooking while it bastes itself. Usually, a large onion or tomato sits at the top of the spit, its juices running down into the meat mingling together in perfect harmony. This whole contraption continues to spin as the chef slices perpendicularly into it. Most Turkish cooks pride themselves on their abilities with their traditional long bladed knives, but some use modern conveniences such as a motorized saw to speed up the process. This is especially necessary when the customers are backed up around the corner! As the chef slices, small bits of caramelized meat tumble down into the waiting bread.
The bread is as varied as the meats. Pita bread is the norm, but some are store-bought, some are baked fresh right at the store, some are fluffy and light, some are thick and dense, and some are cracker thin. However, the best is the traditional doughy pita bread, light and airy on the inside with a wonderful thin, crunchy layer on the outside. Some of the breads are baked in a traditional wood oven, some in an electric toaster, and some are even pressed in a Panini machine. Most are pre-baked in an electric oven, but very rarely the bread is baked as the cook slices the meat and prepares the toppings!
The bread is sliced open, creating a pocket. Tzatziki, that cool, garlicky cucumber and yoghurt combination, is spread on the insides of the bread and pressed together so that it richly covers both sides of the sandwich. As the meat is sliced, it falls either onto a special tray where it is kept warm, or if the cook wants to put on a show, directly into the bread, held under the meat by the slicer. Next come the vegetables, all of which can be individually chosen. Cabbage is most common, either red or a nice shredded green cabbage with a tangy vinegar dressing. Sometimes both are added. Onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes contribute to the party. Often a spicy pepper accompanies the salad, or perhaps a few marinated olives. Rarer, but no less important, feta cheese can be crumbled on the top. Finally, spicy hot pepper flakes are sprinkled over the entire sandwich.
Other sauces are available as well, supporting different tastes. Not just extra Tzatziki, but plain yoghurt sauce, spicy sauces, curry sauces, and pepper sauces are on display, tempting the customer. One only needs to ask.
Put all together, the sandwich is perfection. First, one must crack through the crispy outer layer and bite down into the chewy bread and the crunchy vegetables, rip into the juicy meat and lap up the Tzatziki which cools it all down and melds the flavors together in your mouth. Nothing is better.
Every German knows how close their local döner shop is. I prefer going early in the day, right before they open for lunch. The owner is usually the only one there, and will chat with you about the weather or the local sights. Sometimes they will offer you a free cay, hot Turkish tea. As you drink your tea, watch the spit slowly spin around the fire and listen to the meat begin to sizzle and cook, just occasionally, an owner may start to talk about opening a döner shop with you back in America!