A few days ago I read some rather uncharitable words about one of my favorite Viennese street foods from an ex-pat living here, and I was thus inspired to sing the praises of the lowly Döner Kebab. Or, if you prefer, Shawarma, Gyros, Tacos al Pastor, Sufflaqe, Tarna, or Dyuner.
What is the Döner Kebab? Literally, the Turkish words translate to “Turning Roast.” In its most elegant form, the rotating spit of lamb looks something like this. Anna Grace and I savored this treat in Istanbul many times over last summer. And personally, to me a well prepared Döner sandwich is darned close to haute street cuisine.
This combination of roasted meat, vegetables, and flattened bread (a balanced and perfect meal!) has been around forever in the Middle East; its culinary leap to mainstream street food across Europe (and Asia, Australia, South America and the U.S.) is believed to have happened first in Berlin sometime in the 1970s, says the Berlin Association of Turkish Döner Manufacturers. Or in 1966 in the UK. Take your pick.
The finest of finest Turkish restaurants serve lamb kebab, layers of thinly sliced lamb slowly cooked on a rotating spit. Thanks to my friends who lived in Turkey for many years, I know where to find this goodness here in Vienna. When I’m ‘on a hurry’ or whatnot, though, sometimes the street vendor kebabs, mostly of chicken, turkey or beef, make a decent stand-in. That is, if you know where to find them.
This is where not to order a kebab. The kebab is not layered, and likely contains a mix of meats. There’s a good chance the pita is slightly stale, too.
I have two absolute favorite places in Vienna for street kebabs; this is one of them. The chicken is layered, not pressed and shaved (I asked). The spices are mostly sumac and salt, though I can request the “scharf” (spicy) blend of Döner seasonings.
The Fine Snack Factory prepares the kebab as Döner Pilavüstü, with fluffy rice pilaf. Though the meal is tucked into a box that I bring home to enjoy in a more civilized setting, the salad is crisp, the yogurt is minty, and the sumac adds just the right tartness to my lunch.
My research on this topic identified 25 variations of Döner in Europe alone, some of which include pomme frites (Netherlands), corn (Norway) and ketchup (Albania). I’ve only had German Döner (with crispy red cabbage) and French Döner (with harissa), and of course, Austrian Döner, and I can be excused for passing on the Spanish Döner (with egg) in light of all those tapas we ate.
Next month I am schlepping across the pond for “home leave” (although I will be staying in an apartment because strangers are living in my house. Ponder that.) I have several outings planned with friends; and now so inspired, perhaps I will add “Sample Washington, DC street kebabs” to our agenda!