In many parts of Europe and the world, döner kebabs are the fast food of choice, as ubiquitous as pizza in New York. And to those accustomed to grabbing a steaming hot sandwich at any time, day or night, those rotating kebab spits may seem as if they have been around forever. But in fact, the modern döner kebab was only invented in 1971—and its creator, Mahmut Aygün, died just last week
at the age of 87.
While roasted meats figure heavily in Turkish cuisine, the döner kebab is a classic example of culinary globalization: the traditions of one culture meeting the tastes of another. A Turkish immigrant to Germany, Aygün realized that his fine spiced lamb would sell more widely in sandwich form—stuffed into a pita, rather than served on a plate with rice. He named his creation a döner kebab, from the Turkish word döndurmek, a reference to the rotating spit of meat. And from his small restaurant in West Berlin, the idea took off—customers coming in at all hours and carrying off a sandwich to go.
Today döner kebabs now vary widely, stacking mutton, beef, or chicken on the spit as well as Aygün’s traditional lamb. They are often topped with tzatziki, hot sauce, or an herbed, yogurt-based sauce of Aygün’s own creation. And often served from florescent-lit, 24-hour corner stands, they have become many a student, snacker’s, or all-night partier’s favorite.
Mahmut Aygün may have gone, but his culinary legacy will live on.