Döner: the European Burrito

21 Sep

Burritos have been on my mind lately.  There’s been a meme going around the internet that keeps reminding me that it has been FIVE MONTHS since I’ve eaten a burrito.  Five months!!

There are a few Mexican restaurants here, but they are sad imitations of real Mexican food.  I would not order a burrito from those places.  It would be plated, which is fine I guess.  Spanish culture really likes to sit at a table and eat and talk together; takeaway food is not as common here.  There is just one place that I’ve found so far that makes takeaway burritos and seems like they really got it right: guacamole, pico de gallo, chipotle, Chalula, the whole shebang.  I have not tried the food there, because the burritos are € 8 each and I’m afraid if I tried one, I would not be able to stop, and then I would be poor.  A Londoner might say that it’s a steal, but in the US, $8 is an expensive burrito, and when you convert € 8 to USD, it’s over $10!  I know I have to stop thinking in USD; when I just treat a Euro like I used to treat a dollar in the US, it’s fine.  But when I do the math, then I start to freak out a little.  Some things are less expensive, some things are more expensive; it evens out for the most part, and if not, it’s often due to labor costs, because people actually make a living wage here (if they can find a job)!  So I’m ok with that, but sometimes I need to go through that thought process and remind myself of it.

Really, it’s not the burritos themselves that I miss, it’s the Mexican flavor profile.  Most grocery store chains have a small section of “Mexican” foods; none of them actually come from Mexico (I doubt they would meet EU safety standards). Instead, they’re produced in various European countries where the producers have their own ideas of what Mexican food should taste like.  Today, for the first time I bought some locally produced Mexican tortillas (not to be confused with the Spanish tortilla, which is an egg/potato omelette) from our local grocery. I was able to put together some decent home-cooked soft tacos with them to appease my Mexican food cravings.  The rest of the ingredients were a combination of items we shipped from the US that I’m trying not to use up too quickly, and things we can get locally.  The one thing I can’t import and haven’t found locally is sour cream; today I tried German quark, which sort of like greek yogurt but thicker (used as a spread), but it wasn’t tart enough.  A friend suggested trying a Russian/Eastern European import store, but I haven’t seen one here in Barcelona.  I could probably find everything I needed if I scrounged the city high and low, but I guess I haven’t gotten desperate enough yet.  Once our supply of Mexican ingredients from the US runs out, though, I’ll be forced to search them out here.  Our friend Ian is an expat living in London who rates Mexican restaurants by how much time has to pass before he’s desperate enough to eat there (the best one is three weeks; most are closer to three months).  Thankfully if I get desperate, I can always go to the place that charges € 8 – it shouldn’t become an everyday habit, but a special treat to hold me over until I get desperate again.

The closest thing that Europe has to the burrito as far as tasty noms wrapped up for eating on the go is döner kebab, usually referred to just as döner. Döner comes from the Turkish immigrant community in Germany; it’s Turkish skewered shwarma meat wrapped up in flat thin bread, with vegetables, yogurt sauce and spicy sauce.  Döner places often serve falafel or another vegetarian option as well. Its popularity has slowly spread through Europe, and many Middle Eastern/South Asian immigrants have capitalized on the European love of the döner by opening up döner shops and serving shwarma that is imported in frozen form from Germany. But the further you get from Germany, the worse they get in quality.  Most of the shops here in Barcelona are run by Pakistani immigrants. They add strange ingredients to it; there’s a local place that adds green olive, corn, and shredded beet to the standard lettuce-tomato-onion combo.  It’s just weird.  I’m not sure if  they’re confused about what should go into döner, or they’re adding flavors they feel improve it based on their own cultural background and tastes, or something. Whatever the reason, the end result is that it’s not very good.  We’ve also had a few experiences where the sanitation was questionable: I’ve seen roaches crawling over the food trays in one place after I had already started consuming the döner. Rob is pretty sure that another place, which is my favorite as far as taste, is the culprit for food poisoning he experienced. Even thinking about döner makes me feel slightly ill.  I don’t hear a lot of locals raving about döner like Californians can talk for hours about a good burrito, so sense I’m not the only one that is sketched out by döner here.

Still, döner is generally popular here in Europe.  I’m guessing it’s because it’s cheap food that you can eat on the run (same reason burritos are popular in the US); there aren’t many other foods here that fit that niche. Spanish cuisine is really oriented towards sitting down together over a multi-course meal.  I know France and Italy are the same.

Perhaps I need to find a gourmet döner place that has a reputation riding on the quality of their food.  I need to eat the good döner to combat my negative impressions of it so far.  California has gourmet burritos; there must be gourmet döners as well, right?  In reality, I think the best döner is likely to be found in Germany.  Perhaps it will have to wait until my next visit.  Until then, I’m stuck with occasional homemade food that uses our dwindling supply of imported ingredients, or shelling out € 8.


soft tacos with improvised ingredients

I made these soft tacos with a combination of imported goods (refried beans, an underripe avocado, lime, Tapatio) and items found locally (gazpacho, German quark, red pepper, onion, tortillas). Not bad.

5 Responses to “Döner: the European Burrito”

  1. Marya 2013/09/21 at 15:09 #

    Can you make sour cream at home? http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/how-to-make-sour-cream-and-cream-cheese-recipes.aspx

    Tortillas are also really easy to make.

    Let me know when you need Mexican staple refills. I will gladly ship them to you.

    (I love your blogposts.) :)

    • Aleta 2013/09/22 at 03:23 #

      Hi Marya! Making sour cream at home is a FANTASTIC idea. It should save me some money as well as allowing me to ferment it with raw yogurt so it has lots of probiotic cultures for a happy gut flora. Another friend tracked down a Russian deli not too far from here that is likely to have have sour cream, I’ll give that a try!

      Unfortunately shipping stuff to Spain from California is prohibitively expensive and may still get lost in the mail; we are now only carrying items with us on the plane. I plan to do another blog entry about the woes of mail service here. A care package my dad sent with several items we had purchased in the US and shipped to his place in Colorado has completely disappeared. If it had arrived, it would have gotten held up in customs, which us bureaucratic hell, and we would have had to pay taxes and fees on the contents. The shipping without tracking cost about $60; with tracking it would have cost twice that, but at least it would have increased our chances of the package arriving. Even using DSL, which is one of the largest private shipping companies here in Europe, we’ve had issues.

      So we plan to do a big stock-up on items from CA when we’re there in October, but we’re also really trying to become independent from our need to bring things over from the US at all. It just takes some time as we learn how to replace those things here, as I’ve been doing for Mexican food. The same friend who tracked down the Russian deli has identified a Mexican food import store in town that I plan to check out soon!

      • Marya 2013/09/22 at 11:12 #

        I will try to get my family’s refried bean recipe for you (and ditto my grandma’s tortilla recipe). But seriously: my family’s refrieds? AMAZING.

        • Marya 2013/09/22 at 11:13 #

          (um. but NOT low fat.)

  2. Chris Collins 2013/10/11 at 21:55 #

    I just made this salsa the other day.
    Pretty much five or so ingredients and it was just lovely. I don’t have the mortar and pestle thingy I just used a fork and smashed everything in a bowl.

    I was shocked how close it turned out to the mack daddy salsa in my local Taqueria.
    I always wonder how (and who) used tomatillos…now I know.