Fast food entrepreneur Kadir Nurman recently died in Germany, leaving this world with what may be one of the finest titles ever bestowed on any man: "Inventor of the doner kebab."
Nurman, born in Istanbul, was part of the wave of Turkish migrants who came to Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960's and 70's. Settling in West Berlin, he set a food stall selling sandwiches of grilled meat sliced off a vertical spit and, as they say, the rest is history. Or is it? As the Guardian points out in an article written in the wake of Nurman's death, attributing the "invention" of doner to him might be a bit misleading. From the Guardian:
The doner – or shawarma or gyros, as it's also known –differs from other familiar kebabby preparations, such as shish, by being layered up on a spit and grilled vertically. This in itself wasn't particularly novel; 18th-century Ottoman travel books talk of meat being cooked this way, while in the kebab's spiritual home of Bursa, the vertically grilled Iskender is perhaps Turkey's finest mouthful.
Nurman's supposed innovation came in sticking the shaved pieces of meat into a flatbread with the saladings, making kebabs a moveable feast for busy Berliners. Until then, in theory, they had been shoved on a plate. While few seem convinced by Nurman's claim to have invented what is essentially a sandwich, in 2011 a slightly mysterious Berlin-based organisation called the Association of Turkish Doner Manufacturers made it official, and so it passed into history.
"I'm quite puzzled by all of this," says Lebanese food writer Anissa Helou. "The sandwich has been around for ever in the Middle East, so I'm not quite sure how anyone can claim to have invented it. I think it's some kind of marketing ploy." Nurman certainly isn't the first Berliner to be credited with the creation of the kebab. Today's headlines might have been pasted from one five years ago which hailed Mahmut Aygun as the doner's inventor.
Here in the UK, where we do love a kebab, the first doner is said to have been sold in 1966, predating Nurman's "invention" by six years.
Perhaps rather than as the inventor, it's better to think of Nurman as the "popularizer" of doner, the Ray Kroc of the rotating vertical spit. And popular doner certainly has become, especially in Germany, where it has spawned an industry said to be worth some 2.5 billion euros ($3.43 billion) in annual sales and which now has its own annual trade fair, where such culinary innovations as the robotic doner slicer have been introduced. In fact, the only reason there is even a doner "inventor" to eulogize is because the industry has gotten so big that there exists a German doner trade organization, the Turkish Döner Manufacturers in Europe (ATDID), which -- as the Guardian article mentions -- bestowed the title upon him in what was clearly a savvy marketing move.
So, Nurman may have passed on, but the industry he (and others) helped launch -- and the debate over just who "invented" doner kebab -- will clearly live on.