Donairs might be popular, but the humble shawarma is a rising contender
It’s no contest regarding what pita-wrapped delicacy rules the culinary roost in Canada. From coast to coast, the donair is king. After all, it was invented more than 30 years ago in Halifax. In terms of popularity it easily outranks the shawarma, a centuries-old dish that’s popular in Europe, although it’s starting to gain momentum in this country. And while proponents of these rival dishes vie for your attention and taste buds, they share a common history.
Both involve the rotation method of roasting, which was done horizontally until the 19th century when Turkish chef Mehmetglu Iskender Efendi invented a method to cook the meat in a slow vertical spin, allowing for the morsels to self-baste. That culinary style has been preserved in the dishes’ monikers with donair stemming from the Turkish döner, meaning rotate. Shawarma comes from the Arabic word šāwirmā and Ottoman Turkish šāwarmā, both meaning “something that is spun or turned over.”
Not only are the methods and definitions similar, donairs and shawarmas also share a common ancestor called the döner kebap. Others call it the Iskender kebap (after the inventor) and Bursa kebap (after the Turkish city where it was created). But the method for making the dish is the same, starting with thin slices of basted lamb atop a pile of diced pide (a Mediterranean flatbread) before adding hot tomato sauce and sheep’s milk butter, then garnishing with parsley and a dollop of yogurt.
Beyond that point, the trails associated with the donair and shawarma diverge. The donair’s more immediate origins are easier to trace, dating back to the 1970s when Halifax restaurateur Peter Gamoulakos tried to sell a Greek pita wrap called a gyro. The roasted lamb dish that includes diced tomatoes, onion and a tzatziki sauce wasn’t exactly a hot item. So Gamoulakos swapped out the lamb and tzatziki in favour of beef and a sweet sauce and Canada’s culinary world hasn’t been the same since.
The considerably older shawarma sticks closer to its döner kebap roots and is traditionally made with rotated lamb, sheep or chicken. Spiced and served with garlic sauce, tomato and onion, the rest of the ingredients vary according to region in the Middle East. Israeli consumers avoid yogurt or butter as Jewish dogma forbids meat and dairy in the same meal. Shawarmas are also popular across Europe, although oddly enough, they’re more often referred to as doner kebabs, presumably due to the influence of Turkish immigrants who arrived in the 1960s.
In Canada, the shawarma doesn’t have such an irony when it comes to identity; it’s more like an identity crisis when going up against the donair. But the shawarma is gradually making inroads into Canadian appetites with donair shops adding the dish to their menus. Further publicity potential could be realized with Shawarma Day, a campaign started in 2020 occurring annually on Oct. 15. Should the shawarma eventually catch up to the donair in terms of popularity, the big winners will be consumers who benefit from even more pita-wrapped options.
LOCAL DONAIR & SHAWARMA OUTLETS AT A GLANCE
- 11001-Jasper Ave., Edmonton
- 5328-75 St., Edmonton
- 16529-50 St., Edmonton
- 2811-116 St., Edmonton
- 441 Parsons Rd., Edmonton
- 2730-141 St., Edmonton
- 1115 St. Albert Tr., St. Albert
- 100-1000 Alder Ave., Sherwood Park
- 5110-50 St., Leduc
5 Spruce Village Way, Spruce Grove
388 St. Albert Trail, St. Albert
315 First Drive, Spruce Grove
100 Jennifer Heil Way, Spruce Grove
3507 Tudor Glen, St. Albert
Shawarma & Donair Box
6554-170 Avenue, Edmonton
12432-167 Ave., Edmonton
- 245-140 St. Albert Trail, St. Albert
- 9004-50 St., Edmonton
11722-104 Avenue, Edmonton
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