Döner Deep Dive 1
Updated: May 28, 2020
In this series in partnership with www.sampanzer.com (follow him on Instagram), Sam goes deep on the components of Berlin’s favorite fast food, döner kebab. Today, we’re going to begin in the middle, with the component most vital to a balanced and delightful kebab: a great sauce.
I have fond memories from my first trip to Berlin as a tourist chasing down the best-reviewed döner kebab, Berlin’s signature sandwich of a triangle of flatbread grilled for a shattering crust, stuffed with a dollop of sauces, salad, and meat roasted on a vertical Spieß (occasionally mixed with other fried vegetables). But it took months of living here to realize: Berlin’s urban geography is defined by its döner shops. There’s only one Brandenburg Gate and one Berghain, but there are three döner shops between me and the nearest grocery store (a perilous path when shopping hungry), with over 1,000 of Germany’s 1,600 Dönerbuden in Berlin.
The döner kebab sandwich sold in those shops boldly engages every corner of the human palate in each bite, and for that to work the components need to be in harmony. I’m an unapologetic fast food lover and could gladly talk your ear off about the best American burger chain (it’s Culver’s), but no other fast food is as loud as döner, or as varied, due to the fact that most kebab shops are independently owned, even if buying from a short list of ingredient vendors. There’s plenty that can go wrong and every ingredient must do its part, but perhaps the most vital in tying the sandwich together is the sauce.
I’m not talking about how good the sauce is, in terms of conforming to the latest flavor or photo trend, or maxing out the price of the components. No, the quality of a döner sauce is how effectively it ties the sandwich together. This is often taken for granted, humbly casting the spotlight on other more noticeable components: shatteringly crispy bread, succulent and flavorful meat, the rush of mint or jolt of lemon. Döner is all about balance, and much of this balance is achieved through sauce.
As a döner lover eager to understand the difference from sandwich to sandwich, I wanted to approach the topic of sauce with a bit of history and science. So, like a madman, I went around begging sauces from a few of the kebab shops near me: Ruyam, 7 Days, Max und Moritz, and Imren (all on Hauptstraße in Schöneberg). Before we get into that, let’s start the series with a brief appetizer of döner history.
A Condensed History of Döner in Berlin
The postcard kebab on any Berlin food guide is a food in motion, the product of 50 years of negotiation with German ingredients and preferences. For help surveying döner’s origins as an American who barely speaks German, let alone Turkish, I spoke with Cihan Anadologlu, mixologist and author of Einmal mit Alles: Der Döner und seine Verwandten (in English: One with everything: the Döner and its relatives).
Anadologlu surveys Turkish kebab for context, back to the Iskender Kebap, lamb on a bed of torn pita in a blanket of tomato sauce, sheep butter, and yoghurt. Other bread-based kebap dishes might have yogurt, butter, or grilled vegetables, but the focus is largely on the meat. In the book, Cihan explains both the classic and the wildly inventive preparations in his new döner book stuffed with recipes. Cihan suggested to me that “one shouldn’t forget that the döner kebab in Turkey has little in common with the döner kebab here in Germany… Here, the kebab is eaten more as fast food. In Turkey you take your time. But the döner kebab has adapted to the tastes in Germany and developed its own döner culture.”
Those adaptations began with the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) programs of the 1960s and 1970s, starting a slow percolation of Turkish culinary traditions into the mainstream. The alleged first döner as we know it was stuffed here in Berlin by Kadir Nurman at his shop near Berlin Zoo, where Nurman eventually began incorporating more salad, then new sauces, into his kebab (Spiegel).
Over the years, chicken found its way onto döner spits, driven there by a mix of historical pressures: Mad Cow outbreaks in the mid-90s, a German preference for beef and chicken over lamb (over 5x as popular today), a rising awareness of nutrition, and a wariness of high-carbon-footprint beef. These all incentivized the development of döner into its lower-carne incarnation stuffed with salad and often with chicken.
A salad-heavy chicken döner is a far cry from its ancestors, and has a completely different flavor profile. It’s a sandwich with a story, and a big part of that story are German preferences and expectations: every €0,10 increase on the march to a €5 standard is met with grumbles, and yet we expect döner to be highly consistent and always available. Price point, preferences, and expectations all therefore result most often in lower-quality produce and meat that needs a helping hand –– and so we come to sauce.
What are these sauces?
The most common sauces for Berlin shops are scharf (spicy), kräuter (herb), and knoblauch (garlic). The list continues (especially outside Berlin) with other sauces such as Cocktail, Samurai, or Barbecue, usually mayo-ketchup blends with some add-in. But here, we’ll focus on the main three.
Kräuter and knoblauch are siblings, generally sharing the same foundation and hitting a lot of the same notes. They always have a creamy, fatty base composed of a mix of yoghurt and / or mayonnaise, usually have a hefty dose of sugar, and occasionally a noticeable hit of acid. These sauces also might have a tangy cheese incorporated.
The herbs in kräuter sauce are typically dried dill and oregano, and sometimes dried mint. Dried herbs lack much of the complexity of fresh (and often have a totally different, oxidized flavor). Kräuter is occasionally colored with tomato paste or chili powder, though it’s rarely perceptible and is more for a color contrast with knoblauch. Knoblauch sauce is usually the same base but with grated, minced, or powdered garlic incorporated into the sauce.
Scharf typically doesn’t have a creamy element, and is often the sweetest of the sauces with a strong molasses or brown sugar backbone. Döner author Cihan Anadologlu identifies this sweetness as key, pointing out that “sweetness is one of our five tastes” and “everyone knows sweet and also likes sweet.” Anadologlu believes all five tastes –– sweet, salty, umami, sour, and bitter –- are vital in a kebab, and “it is the combination of everything that makes up the kebab taste and this sweetness is part of it.”
Testing a few exemplary scharf sauces confirmed that most scharf is indeed sweet –– shockingly sweet. It often has a ketchup backbone, with the same glossy texture and thickness, and even more sweetness. The spice level varies dramatically from shop to shop, but usually falls under the most German definition of ‘spicy.’ Here are a few notes on the scharf I sampled:
Imren: very sweet molasses-y backbone, though with an herby mix (maybe oregano, maybe dill). Within seconds, the heat from the suspended chili flakes starts to build, leaving me with an aching tongue and sweating forehead within minutes.
Ruyam: far, far sweeter than Imren. If this was on a burger, I’d barely notice it isn’t ketchup. Almost no acidity. There is some notable heat when tried alone, but when spread in a busy sandwich it’s just a warming hum.
7 Days: the worst of all worlds –– cloyingly sweet, mayonnaise heaviness, nearly no heat. Really a blend of all the sauces. If I tried it blindfolded I would assume it’s a nightmare aioli that once read a pamphlet about chili powder.
With that brief starter on what a sauce is, let’s examine what we want these sauces to accomplish.
What to look for in a sauce
Döner sauces are a photo editing app for a sandwich, bringing out the tones you want and maybe hiding a blemish or two. It’s easy to overdo or to do wrong, but ultimately a very powerful tool for a balanced and beautiful result. Ultimately, every döner needs its sauce to do something different. The sauces usually fail, hiding beyond the eggy punch of mayo or a smothering sweetness more at home in the Eiscafe down the street.
Let’s take a step back and think about what we might be asking a sauce to do:
Enrich savory notes with extra umami or fatty tones
Energize heavy or dull flavors with acid
Lighten the richer ingredients with herbs
Extend the experience with lingering heat
The other ingredients determine which of these levers the sauce needs to pull. More processed, minced varieties have acids like citric acid to retain water, increase tenderness, and prevent oxidation. Beef is also generally more acidic than chicken, so a minced beef spit will be notably more acidic than a stacked chicken spit. Therefore, a sweeter and more savory sauce might make more sense, particularly as the minced beef spits tend to be less packed with flavor. The salad, too, varies a great deal. Is there red cabbage tossed in vinegar and lemon? Is the entire sandwich topped with a squeeze of citrus? How sad and out-of-season are the tomatoes?
That’s all to say, that the real value of sauce is balancing the other ingredients, and the ‘quality’ of a sauce is how well it ties together the sandwich, and jives with the dominant flavor of the meat.
Let’s return to our three samples, adding in the context of what the scharf need to do in each specific sandwich:
Imren: a “unicorn” kebab, where the spits are stacked with sliced veal and capped with lamb fat and marinated with onion and warming spices like cinnamon and clove. A more traditional döner, the actually-hot scharf warms the palate to prolong the experience. While the sauce is sweet, it’s far less sugary than others, ensuring the dish doesn’t end up tasting like a beefy bundt cake.
Rüyam: the pinnacle of Berlin-style chicken döner, with fried vegetables soaking up the drippings of succulent and oregano-heavy meat. The warm fillings are even tossed with a squeeze of a mysterious yellow bottle that I suspect is an umami-bomb sauce akin to Maggi. The döner is later sprinkled with a tangy cheese and a squeeze of lemon. Here, the scharf rounds out the sandwich with ample sweetness. With all the flavors maxed out, even a bit too much scharf can overwhelm and ruin the sandwich, but the vast majority of my experiences have been near perfection.
7 Days: an exhausting kebab shop, ridden with oxymorons like the vollkorn brot with nacho cheese topping. Maybe it’s the fluorescent lighting and the heat of two spits and a hotlamp for burgers, but stepping into this shop is always a bit of a slap to the face. Their scharf is likewise confused, a mayo-based, sticky-sweet sauce studded with dried herbs. No discernible heat. This sauce, like much of 7 Days’ menu, is different from normal, but also worse.
These three scharf options exemplify what you’ll find in Berlin: a wide range of spice, a lot of sugar, and a texture similar to ketchup. In my view, scharf is the area where great kebabs (like Imren or Rüyam) truly excel. Kräuter, knoblauch, and scharf all have their part to play, but there’s more room to hide in the white sauces.
There are no flash cards to study on sauce taxonomy. Döner varies by city, shop, day, and mood. Sometimes scharf has mayo, sometimes knoblauch has herbs. In an ever-evolving food between places and eras, it doesn’t matter so much what the sauce is so much as what it does.
So next time your teeth break through the glassy exterior of Berlin’s favorite meal, ask yourself –– does this sauce make sense in this kebab? Is it bringing the other ingredients into harmony? And finally, am I overthinking this?
Generally, I want more tang in sauces, from yogurt or crumbled cheeses. But this is expecting a lot of a kebab shop: how can they keep sauce vats of fresh herbs and yogurt-based sauces ready to go at any moment, waiting for hours on a refrigerated prep counter and sold for under €4?
The truth is, they probably can’t. With other ingredients, those sauces are likely to leech water or develop skins if left out too long. That means small batches are required, and in a tightly-staffed, tiny doener shop, it’s a losing proposition.
The topic even comes up in Von Wegen Lisbeth’s album firstname.lastname@example.org, which Der Spiegel described as somebody ‘poured liquid amber over Berlin in 2019 and preserved it as this album.’ The lyrics are a lament from a millennial Berlin resident looking around at the world in frustration. Unable to differentiate Tupac from Brecht, confused why the AfD is still around even after they’ve been going to yoga, the singer pauses to ask why there’s mayonnaise in their doener.
Significantly spicier and also generally more complex
Visible particulate, dried herbs and crushed pepper –– maybe oregano, maybe dill, but overpowered by the sweetness at first and then the heat
Heat builds slowly but dramatically, lingers a long time
Incredibly, incomprehensibly sweet, far, far sweeter than Imren’s –– wild they’re even considered the same ingredient as Imren
Sweeter than even an American style Heinz
If it was on a burger, I would have just assumed it’s ketchup and the heat came elsewhere
Same suspended chili flakes –– there is some heat but when spread out on a sandwich it’s just enough to wake your palate up
7 DAYS SCHARF
The worst of all worlds
Hardly any heat
Herb chunks are much more visible
More of a blend of kraeuter and scharf
If I were blindfolded, I would assume it’s primarily a mayo sauce
Red bell pepper-y heat / paprika
MAYO VS YOGHURT
Mayonaisse is a very stable emulsion, with tiny droplets of oil suspended in water. Egg proteins (the emulsifier) surround the fat so they don’t connect back together, forming a thick mixture that’s tricky to separate unless you add a bunch of liquid so that the fats can float freely.
Yoghurt is actually a gel –- a solid with liquid mixed in. That solid can become too ‘full’ and dispel the liquid.
Sesame paste is a fascinating substance. Like other nut butters.