The most popular fast food in Germany is neither bratwurst nor currywurst nor hamburger. The quintessential street menu is the kebab, or doner as it’s called in German: thin strips of fried meat, served with salad and plenty of sauce in a flatbread. Meat rolls rotating on their own when grilled on a vertical grill are an iconic image of German cities. That’s why many threw up their hands when inflation skyrocketed and the traditionally cheap doner kebab wasn’t so cheap anymore. But how is that supposed to cost a doner kebab? Asked the incredulous customers of a Frankfurt restaurant, which caused a stir in the media when the price was increased to 10 euros.
“The kebab is part of the German identity,” says Eberhard Seidel, sociologist and author of the book Döner: Eine Turkisch-Deutsche Kulturgeschichte (2022). The favorite food of students – a kebab shop has just opened on campus at the Technical University of Berlin – and that of the working class has risen for decades from four to five euros to six, seven or, as in Frankfurt, ten euros in just a year and a half. “The reaction to the price increase was a bit dramatic, but understandable given how inexpensive it was to prepare a meal that’s pretty complete with 150 or 200 grams of meat, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, sauce and bread,” says Seidel from his office at the NGO Schools Without Racism, which he currently heads.
It was the Turkish immigrants who popularized this dish in the 1970s, if they didn’t invent it. Around 550 tons of this meat is sold in around 18,000 shops across the country. Neither McDonald’s nor any other food franchise company even comes close to accounting for the doner kebab industry. Most are small family businesses, and many were set up after the 1973 oil crisis, when workers of Turkish origin who, from 1961, had entered the factories and mines of a Germany in full industrial development, hungry for work, lost their jobs. “They were guest workers [literalmente, trabajadores invitados] and they should have left, but in many cases they had brought their families with them and wanted to stay. “It’s a success story: they created Germany’s national food out of necessity,” says the expert.
a key index
Years ago, the index was how long you had to work to buy a kilo of pork or a beer. Today, the index is the doner kebab, explains Seidel. That is why the surge in inflation has led to talk of a “kebab crisis” or to the fact that the Social Democrats hung up banners in the last local elections in Berlin in Kreuzberg, the traditional residential area of the Turkish community, on which they called for the “price brake for kebabs”. Average inflation in Germany last year was 8%, the highest level in the country’s post-war history. This June it closed at 6.4% (compared to 1.9% in Spain), which was mainly affected by food prices. The shopping cart is 13.7% more expensive than a year ago.
Actually, says Seidel, the kebab was too cheap. The low cost came from long hours of poorly paid labor – the owners are usually the same people who operate the long knives used to cut the meat – and very tight profit margins. “With the war, the prices of all raw materials have skyrocketed, and you have to reckon with the fact that grills use a lot of gas,” he points out. Even if Germany manages to curb inflation, it’s unlikely that kebab will ever return to the filling and extremely cheap fast food it once was.
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