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What Is a Donair?

By P.M. Willers
Updated May 16, 2024
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Donair, inspired by Döner Kebab, is a uniquely Canadian variation on the gyro sandwich. The first donair sandwiches were created in the Halifax area of Canada, and they can now be found throughout the eastern part of the country and in larger western Canadian cities. A restaurant called King of Donair claims to have invented the sandwich in the early 1970s after previous attempts to sell gyro sandwiches were unsuccessful. The proprietors modified the gyro sandwiches they were selling but still cooked the meat on a spit, similar to the manner in which gyro meat is cooked.

Instead of the lamb in a typical gyro, the meat is made from a combination of ground beef and bread crumbs, and is spiced in various ways, depending on the restaurant. The flavor and texture is often likened to meatloaf. A sweet garlic sauce is used on the dish, replacing the salty yogurt tzatziki found on a gyro. The sauce is typically made from evaporated milk, vinegar, garlic, and sugar. Similar to a gyro, donairs are served in pita flat bread and topped with slices of tomato and onion.

Since the invention of this unique meat and sauce, its use has spread to other food items. Donair pizza uses the sauce in lieu of conventional red sauce and the meat is a topping, and is commonly featured at Halifax restaurants. In maany places, donair hamburgers and submarine sandwiches are also sold. Donair poutine is a popular version of the gravy and cheese curd topped french fries served all over eastern Canada. In this version, the meat and sauce are used in addition to the traditional ingredients instead of replacing them.

Although found all throughout Canada, it is generally agreed that the best versions can be found in and around Halifax. Criticisms include a less flavorful sauce and a lack of tenderness in the meat. There has also been evidence of a lack of knowledge of how to properly prepare the meat. Several cases of Escherichia coli (E. coli) occurred in central Canada and were tied to undercooked donair meat, prompting the Canadian government to enact legislation dictating that the meat must be cooked both on the vertical spit and, after shaved from it, cooked on a grill. Many donair restaurants in Halifax had been cooking the meat in this manner ever before the legislation.

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Discussion Comments
By anon989171 — On Feb 22, 2015

@Cageybird -- I would say it is. If you grow up in Eastern Canada you grow up eating things with donair meats, lots of garlic and onion and tart foods as they go well with seafood. But many love these, and a lot are surprised when they find out the smallest ones available are 1/4 pound.

By Phaedrus — On Apr 22, 2014

@Cageybird, I agree that gyros and donairs aren't really interchangeable, but I happen to like the donair meat a little more than you do. The lamb in traditional gyro meat is something I could live without. The donair meat is more like a really good meatloaf mix with an added kick of Mediterranean spices. I think it's a better dining experience if you don't try to compare the two sandwiches side by side.

I know that many health departments put a lot of restrictions on the use of vertical rotisseries, like the ones used for gyros and donairs. Someone has to shave off the meat off the cone when it becomes browned, and then cook it again on a flat top or in a frying pan.

By Cageybird — On Apr 21, 2014

I've had both traditional gyros and donairs, and I have to give the edge to the lamb and beef gyros. Donair meat is good, but I miss the texture of the original rotisserie meat and the coolness of the tzatziki sauce. I find the sauce on a donair to be a little too tart sometimes, but I think it's an acquired taste.

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