In a nightlong eating marathon, an American novelist tries to uncover the secrets of Berlin's favorite fast food.
It is a cool March evening in Berlin. We are heading west on Bundesallee, a wide commercial street that might be in Cleveland. Actually, I'm not sure which way we're headed. But I don't let on. I'm the guide tonight. This was my idea.
The editors at FOOD & WINE seem to have a war-room map, studded with pins. Each pin represents a writer. They know where we all are. They know which exotic cuisines we might be eating. The Eugenides pin (just a thumbtack, really, not the royal-blue pushpin of Updike, not the flat-head nail of Mailer) impales Berlin. "He's over there on some kind of fellowship," one editor said at the morning story meeting. The next day, the invitation arrived. FOOD & WINE wanted me to write about my favorite food here in the new capital of the united Germany.
I accepted. My wife had been lobbying for an expensive dinner out. Here in Germany they have something called Social Democracy. Over in America we have something called the expense account. Self-employed novelists don't get one. This was my only chance.
I made a reservation at the hot new place Berliners are talking about. It was a restaurant in the Kreuzberg neighborhood called Le Cochon Bourgeois. "Good evening," I said, in my faulty German. "I am writing a restaurant review for a famous American magazine. It is also my birthday." For whatever reason, the service that night was fantastic. My glass was never empty. The waitress bent close to my ear to suggest a wine for each course. The Germans at our table dined on beef cheeks, which they claimed were the tenderest part of the beast. I had lamb, from a nonfacial area, while my wife had blood sausage, worth every bit of karmic debt. Finally, the entire staff, including the chef, brought out a cake and serenaded me with "Happy Birthday." Le Cochon Bourgeois was a great find. But I knew even then, as my candles sputtered out, that I had nothing interesting to say about it.
Tonight's different. Tonight I can feel the quickening in my blood that comes when a writer connects with his material. What are we doing driving around Berlin? We are on a mission: to seek out, in a single night, in a gastronomic marathon, the best fast food in Berlin.
The Definition Of Döner
People have the wrong idea about Berlin. They think it's gray, when it's actually green. They think it's tortured, when it's actually peaceful. And they think it's German, when it's actually, significantly, Turkish.
Decades ago, Turks began coming to Berlin as guest workers, settling in Kreuzberg. Biblically disposed, they were fruitful; they multiplied. Today, if Kreuzberg were a city, it would be the fifth-largest Turkish city in the world. Nothing symbolizes this Turkish presence more than the ubiquitousness of döner here. It is said that the best döner to be had on earth is not in Istanbul but right here on the streets of Berlin. There are döner restaurants and döner fast-food stands and old GDR trailers selling döner out of rear windows. In general, Turkish döner resembles Greek gyro. Both revolve on spits. Both are made of geological layers of processed meat. Both are the shape of a tornado. But while gyro is usually made of lamb, döner is beef or, most commonly, veal. As a döner spins, dripping juices, the chef shaves off thin, slightly crusty pieces. These go into pita bread along with chopped tomatoes, onions, cabbage and spices. You can have either the traditional yogurt-and-garlic sauce or a red hot sauce. This being Germany, the hot sauce is not hot.
Along the avenue I watch the Spiesse turning in the windows of döner stands. Some skewers of meat look fat and happy, others emaciated and forlorn. The German der Spiess, meaning skewer or spit, gave rise to the slang term spiessig, meaning Philistine or, that favorite term among Europeans, petit bourgeois. What does it mean that I've chosen to write not about nouvelle German cuisine but about grilled meat? I can't think about this right now. I am mesmerized by all the spinning, glistening Fleisch.
I have standards, however. "Only places where we can sit down," I tell my friends. "I don't want to stand."
Why are we doing all this in one night? Simple. This isn't my car.
It is a 1962 Fiat. A classic car, as small, shapely and collectible as a Bakelite radio. The Berlin Wall went up in 1961; a year later the Italians made this automobile. Now the Wall is gone but the Fiat is still going. The dashboard has only three switches: windshield wipers, heat, vent.
"What adjectives are you going to use to describe the car?" the driver asks.
"Imperturbable," I answer. "The small red imperturbable Fiat."
The driver gives me a withering look. "It's Bordeaux," he says. "Red? I can't believe you're a writer."
The person who says this to me is the painter Glen "The Educated Palate" Rubsamen. He is wearing a gray Austrian jacket made from boiled wool. It makes him look both woodsy and genteel. Seeing him in profile now, I also think, not for the first time, how much Glen resembles the composer Philip Glass. He hates this fact, however, so I don't mention it.
In the backseat is the sculptor Rita McBride. Rita and Glen are married. This is a good thing as they are perfectly suited for each other. But let's not get too happy here: There is sadness in the air. Tonight is Rita and Glen's last night in Berlin. Our search for the best döner in the city is a farewell party.
I have asked Rita and The Palate along because they, unlike me, have taste. A few months ago, The Palate cooked me a meal I'll never forget. The main course was pork simmered in milk. It was some kind of sophisticated cut tied up in string, like a miniature edible harp. "They make this pork dish in only one village in Italy," The Palate said. "And in the next village over, a place called Cremona, they make this special mustard to serve with it."
"What mustard?" I said. On my plate next to the pork were only two pieces of candied fruit, a cherry and an orange.
"Try a little bit of that cherry with your pork," The Palate said, smiling.
I cut a slice of pork, a slice of cherry, and put them into my mouth. The cherry tasted like hot mustard!
With food, as with a paintbrush, The Palate is a magician. He is here tonight to tell me what it is I am eating.
The Eternal Mystery Of Döner
Our first stop is a place called Habibi in the district of Schöneberg in West Berlin. This is The Palate's suggestion. There are tables inside with stools. I don't like stools. Does anybody like stools? Nevertheless, it qualifies.
As we're eating our döner, however, I notice something. "Hey, it says schwarma on the window. This isn't a döner place."
"It isn't?" says The Palate.
"I'm supposed to be writing about döners," I say, pointedly, to The Palate. Then I remember the car. "It's good, though. This schwarma. It's basically the same as a döner. And fresh-squeezed orange juice. Good choice. Though not strictly in my purview."
"We should ask how they make one of these things," The Palate says, changing the subject.
"Good idea," I say.
When we do, however, the man only answers, "We make it here."
"No," The Palate persists. "How do you make it?"
"Here. We make it here."
At our next stop, a bona fide döner stand, we try again. "Don't worry," the döner shaver says. "You don't have to make one. We make it for you."
"They don't want to tell us," Rita says.
Enlightenment Under The Overpass
As we hurtle down Yorckstrasse a few minutes later, heading east across the city, The Palate's nose twitches. "We have to try that place. That looks great."
I shake my head. "You have to stand."
"Unfortunately for you," The Palate informs me, "I'm driving." He pulls the Fiat into a parking lot.
The Imbis Hisar Spezial Döner glows whitely under the overpass of the elevated S-Bahn train. It's a lovely, desolate location. Soot-blackened walls rise across the street. Trains run past overhead. The surrounding land is open, junk-strewn, filled with the unexpected hope of crumbling places. In every city there are areas that exude, in a concentrated form, the basic ingredients of life there. The Imbis Hisar on Yorckstrasse is such a place. The evening sky is glowing a soft light blue. The smell of coal drifts in from the furnaces in the East. You can feel it here, all of it: Berlin's industrial beginnings, its dark fanatic history and its irrepressible, open-field present. Food depends on where you eat it. The Palate can discern this spice from that spice; for me, location itself is a flavoring.
I don't mind standing to eat here on Yorckstrasse. "Alles klar?" the man at the counter says to me. This means, essentially, "Everything okay?" But, a student of German, I still get caught up in literal denotations. "All is clear?" the counterman seems to be saying to meas if, along with my döner, he's handing me the secret to life.
We Discover The Secret
An hour later, after stopping at five other stands, none worth mentioning, after having döner with stale bread or too much salt, we arrive in the Zehlendorf neighborhood, at Divan.
"This place is nice," I say. "You can sit."
Since this is a German Turkish restaurant and not a strict Muslim one, we order three enormous beers. When our food arrives, it is enormous also. The Palate gets the Iskender Kebab, a mound of döner under a red sauce. I get the Divan Teller Spezial, which includes spicy kofta meatballs along with döner, roast chicken and pommes frites. Rita gets the Shish Yogurtlu, which is lamb with a spiced yogurt sauce. All of these dishes taste exactly the same.
When the waiter comes over, I try one last time. I explain that I'm writing an article for an American magazine. And then I ask, "How do you make döner?"
"You want to know how we make döner?" He grabs me by the arm and lifts me out of my seat. He drags me across the restaurant to a small, greasy document posted near the skewer itself.
"There are over fifty-five different companies in Berlin making just döner," he tells me. "There are all kinds. Our döner is seventy percent Scheibenanteil and thirty percent Hackfleisch. Some restaurants have only fifty-fifty. The more Scheibenanteil, the better. Here, seventy-thirty. Here is our card. The name on it is the owner's. Do not mention him in your article. Mention me, Türkay Aslan."
So that's the answer. Döner is part meat cuttings (Scheibenanteil) and part ground meat (Hackfleisch), pressed together into a huge cone. On a napkin, I write down the name of the company that makes the döner. "I may have to visit one of these döner factories," I tell my friends.
"I can't drive you," says The Palate. "By then Rita and I will be in Ghent, a lovely medieval town known for its prunes."
"I forgot to get a receipt!" I say as we get to the car. I run back to get one. When I return to the Fiat, Rita and The Palate are silent. We drive away. I look over at The Palate. His boiled-wool Austrian jacket still looks elegant. His recent haircut at the hands of a Rastafarian doesn't seem quite so unfortunate in the darkness of the Fiat's interior. But something seems to be wrong with The Palate. He is sitting funny. "No more!" he cries at last. "No more döners!"
He is clutching his stomach. I realize my mistake at once. Going back for the receipt has allowed The Palate and Rita to think about things, and they are now pulling out of our mission. It is time to rally the troops.
"We haven't even been to Kreuzberg yet," I say. "The heart of Turkish Berlin! Think of how many döners there are in Kreuzberg."
The Fiat lurches. Something is going on inside The Palate. Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I should never have enlisted a man of such culinary refinement to sample so many roadside bags of meat. But then I have a brainstorm.
"Rice pudding!" I shout. "You have to have the rice pudding at Hasir. That will settle your stomach."
It is touch and go. Fortunately, Rita McBride votes against her husband, and The Palate steers our classic vehicle in a new direction. Lovely, spacious, sad old apartment buildings pass on either side. The Landwehr canal glints in the moonlight. The Fiat is very loud inside; also, air is coming in the window, making me cold. But we are headed east toward Kreuzberg.
On the way, I have time to think. The similarity of döner and gyros has a personal meaning for me. My paternal grandparents came from Asia Minor. They lived outside Bursa in what today is Turkey, part of a Greek minority under Ottoman rule. The relations between the Eugenideses and the Turks (including a girlfriend I had in my twenties) haven't always been especially warm. My grandmother, in fact, was nearly killed by Turkish soldiers and had to hide in a cave for almost a week in order to escape. Nevertheless, I don't think these hatreds should be kept going. The poison must be drawn off after a while. I feel the same way about Jewish friends who refuse to visit me here in Germany. Such thinking is primitive. It ascribes to living persons the guilt of the dead and invests the land itselfthe soil, the treeswith a residue of evil. I don't know how my grandmother would feel about my frequenting Turkish restaurants in Berlin, but the fact is, I feel more at home, or at least less out of place, in a Turkish restaurant than I do in a German Kneipe.
The Turks in Germany, just like the Greeks in America, have had to market themselves. In order to sell a native cuisine, you have to translate it, and that, often as not, means kitsching it up. I'm thinking about this German word spiessig again. People of the spit. This is what Greeks in America and Turks in Berlin have had to become. Both döner and gyros are fabrications. Meat cuttings are pressed together to simulate the body of an animal roasting on a spit. People like to see Greeks and Turks in this way, as simple villagers, as slaughterers of goats. There's a direct line from the gyros spinning today in the Olympia Diner on Third Avenue in New York City to the pagan sacrifices described by Homer in the Iliad. The scent of roast lamb rises to Olympus, pleasing the gods. And Manhattanites.
This is one reason for the sympathy I feel here in Berlin for my supposed historical enemies. When I was young, my father used to take me to all the Greek-owned fast-food restaurants in Detroit. He was a mortgage banker, but he always knew the guys behind the counters or at the grills.
Saved by Dessert
If you visit only one döner restaurant in Berlin, it should be Hasir. There are four Hasirs, actually. One, on Nürnberger Strasse, has no döner and is upscale. The second, in Schöneberg, has a döner made of 100 percent Scheibenanteil. The third is in Spandau. All are good. My favorite, however, is the Hasirin Kreuzberg. The interior is tiled blue and white in abstract designs. There is a painted mural of the suspension bridge over the Bosphorus. The restaurant is full of Turkish Berliners, most of them ordering the Mercimeck Corbasi, which is a red-lentil soup. People stop in for döner to go or sit at one of the booths or tables inside. In summer, there are tables outside, close to the traffic.
All the main dishes at Hasir are good, especially the Acili Terbiyeli Shish Kebab, which is shish kebab with garlic and vegetables in an authentically hot sauce. With Rita and The Palate, I order only the desserts. The Sutlac, or rice pudding, is incredible. "This is the best rice pudding I've ever had," I say, "except for my grandmother's."
"The Kazandibi is also very good," says The Palate, already picking up the lingo, as he spoons in the sweet Turkish dessert.
"Try this," Rita says. She offers her husband some Tel Kadayif, an exotic pudding with walnuts, pomegranate, peach, grapes, raisins and syrup.
The Palate is eating and smiling. The crisis is averted. There is a good chance he will drive me home.
I have enjoyed my night immensely. I will miss Rita and Glen. As we leave, I take out the napkin where I've written the address of the döner factory. After looking at it a moment, I crumple it up and toss it into a trash can. I decide not to find out how döner is made. Some things in life should not be inquired into too deeply.
Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of The Virgin Suicides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He is currently a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.