Mustafa's kebaps become Berlin staple

Turkish immigrant brings new flavors and foods to Berlin


It’s the middle of January in Berlin and Katharina has been standing outside in the snow with her friends for about 50 minutes. She was waiting to get her hands on a 3 euro fried potato, eggplant and peppers sandwich with three secret sauces from a small “kebap” stand in Berlin.

By the time the overfilled veggie bread pocket with its shredded lettuce, crumbled feta, and chili, yogurt and garlic sauce lands in Katharina’s hands, she is almost too cold to clutch her prize.

But she does, and because there is no seating at this small stall Katharina, who didn’t want to reveal her last name, stands and devours her sandwich in minutes.

Welcome to Berlin, where everyone – from foodies to tourists to taxi drivers to homeless people – is crazy for these messy sandwiches known as “döner kebaps,” and for this small kebab stand known as Mustafa’s. The small stall is located just outside of a subway stop on a bustling street in the heart of Kreuzberg, one of Berlin’s most multicultural districts.

The stand measures about 10 feet across and 8 feet high and holds three cooks who work in an assembly line. It attracts a practically non-stop line of people – sometimes more than 100, from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m.

“If you’re going to eat one thing in Berlin make sure it is a döner from Mustafa’s!” wrote Lauren F., a tourist from Chicago, on Yelp, where Mustafa’s gets four and a half stars.

Mustafa’s has been in Berlin for the past four years, but only in the last two has it received so much hype. It’s on social media, TripAdvisor and YouTube.

“We were looking for a good meal for our last day and a lot of reviews said, ‘You haven’t experienced Berlin until you eat at Mustafa’s!’” said Zach from Boston, who didn’t want to give his last name. He and his girlfriend Meredith stood at the back of a line of more than 30 people on a freezing January day.

The “döner kebap” arrived in Berlin more than 40 years ago when Germany imported a large workforce from Turkey and the workers didn’t like the heavy blandness of traditional German cooking. They longed for quicker, more colorful and spicy dishes. Now, Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey and in Kreuzberg, Turks make up 11 percent of the population.

Uli Brückner, a Jean Monnet professor of European Studies who teaches at Stanford University in Berlin, said in the 1960s, Germans thought the Turks would come to Germany for a few years to work and then leave. But that never happened. The Turkish workers stayed, but they sent much of the money they made in Germany to their families in Turkey.

“Germany realized if we want to keep the money in the German economy we should allow the guest workers to invite their families to Germany and close the door,” Brückner said.

Over decades, these Turks and their families changed the fabric of the city and revolutionized its food, particularly street food. Today, there are more kebap stands than people in Berlin, or about 1.3 stands per person according to Martin Reichart, a journalist at Berlin daily newspaper Taz.

Classically, a döner consists of marinated meat sliced from a rotisserie and slathered over flatbread or pita with chopped lettuce, onion, tomatoes, pickles herbs and chili and spicy sauce served on a flat bread or pita.

Kebaps are eaten while standing, which is unusual in Germany, whose classic food items such as schnitzel, potato soup, spaetzle, etc. were traditionally served at a table, preferably by a buttoned up waiter, and served with wine, beer or sparkling water.

Today, however, the döner could arguably be called classic Berlin street food. It’s only real rival is “currywurst mit pommes,” a sliced sausage covered in spicy sauce and topped with French fries that emerged in Berlin after World War II as a street snack for construction workers rebuilding the devastated city. British soldiers, according to lore, provided the Worchester sauce and curry powder that went into the first secret currywurst sauce. Like a döner, it usually sells for 3-4 euros. It comes in a rectangular paper carton and is eaten standing.

On this particular corner of Berlin, these two street foods – the döner and the currywurst – face off. Right next to the line for Mustafa’s – sometimes even mingling with it – is a line for Berlin’s most successful currywurst stand, Curry 36.

Mirko Grossmann, the current CEO/COO of Curry 36, insists the two stands are not rivals and that he and Mustafa’s have a “friendly relationship.” Still, in recent years, Curry 36 has added vegetarian and vegan items and Mustafa’s – which markets itself as a vegetable stand – also has chicken options.

The average wait time for Curry 36 is 20 minutes, while Mustafa’s line is almost 25 minutes longer. No one will say who serves more, but Curry 36 serves its clients much more efficiently. In fact, those waiting in Mustafa’s line often snag a plate of fries at Curry 36 to stave off their hunger. It’s a slow wait for fast food.

“Sometimes the lines meet each other, “ Grossman said. “It’s kind of surprising because honestly it is just a kebab. People who are standing in this row waiting for about one and a half up to two hours, I do not understand this. For any food on the market I wouldn’t stand in a row for two hours just for a kebab.”

Unlike the CEO of Curry 36, the owner of Mustafa’s is not talkative or easy to find. He’s also not called Mustafa. His real name is Tarik Kara. He named his stand “Mustafa’s” because he thought it was a catchy and recognizable Turkish name. Kara originally agreed to an interview, but then changed his mind.

His employees say now that his stand is so successful, his schedule has become erratic; they never know when he is going to show up. When he does, he always wears his signature white fisherman’s hat. He has a website and several German videos feature him laughing and serving inside the stand in fluent, but accented, German. But he never gives full-fledged interviews or talks about how he started and what his goals are.

His website is kitschy and features flying döners with white angel wings and animated versions of himself and his workers. There is also a live cam button viewers can push and to see the line at all times of day. His workers say they are forbidden from talking about the business.

And yet, despite his erratic behavior, his customers remain loyal. Taxi drivers pull up regularly at opening time, which is the end of their all-night shift, for a meal before bed. Homeless people love him and there is even one elderly couple who comes every Thursday at noon for their fried veggie and feta fix.

Mustafa’s, like the döner, has become a Berlin staple.