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How the donair, with its Greek origins, became Halifax's official food?


Michael Nicoletopoulos makes sure the donair is as fresh as it should be for guests of the annual Halifax Greek Fest. - Maan Alhmidi
Michael Nicoletopoulos makes sure the donair is as fresh as it should be for guests of the annual Halifax Greek Fest. - Maan Alhmidi

Although donairs were chosen as the official food of Halifax in 2015, the meal is originally Greek. But the donair sauce was invented on the East Coast, a Greek donair cook said.

Michael Nicoletopoulos works as a financial adviser, but in June he replaces his suit with an apron to cook donairs for guests of the Halifax Greek Fest.

“I use the past experience to make sure the donair is good,” Nicoletopoulos said. “My father owned a donair shop 35 years ago.

“In the old days, they made gyros like donair but with tzatziki sauce, not sweet (donair) sauce. The Greeks who came to Halifax made sweet sauce because not everyone liked tzatziki. We have developed the sauce afterward and made it into what it is now.”

With the sweet donair sauce, Greek immigrants were able to create a Nova Scotian version of the Greek gyros. The sauce — made of milk, sugar, vinegar and garlic — balanced the spicy taste of donairs.

“Donair meat has a lot of spices ... it could be cayenne pepper, oregano,” Nicoletopoulos said. The trick for a good donair is “to use a good ground beef, try not to use any fillers, and to use a variety of species.”

Regional twists

The meal has different versions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The word donair has a Turkish origin. The Turkish spelling, döner, refers to the rotation of the meat being prepared. The Greek name is gyros and the word in Greek means round movement or spinning. In Arab countries like Syria and Lebanon, shawarma is very common and it’s a very similar meal.

Donairs were once made of lamb but beef has become the donair meat nowadays. On the other hand, shawarma is mostly made of chicken that is cut in slices and stacked in a cone-like shape on a vertical rotisserie. Then the meat gets shaved off, so the cooked surface gets shaved as it continuously rotates.

“I’m one of the first of those who made shawarma in Halifax,” said Tarek Kostek, the owner of Tarek’s Cafe on Robie Street. He’s run this place for more than 40 years.

Chicken shawarma is made of chicken breasts, which means it has less fat than donair. Yet shawarma hasn’t been as successful as donairs in Halifax.

The demand here for shawarma isn’t high.

“It could go for two to three hours here in Halifax and you don’t sell any wrap,” he said. “In this case, you would need to turn off the fire on the shawarma so you don’t burn it, but that would ruin it as it gets cold.

“If you sell too much of it, the fire would be always on as the shawarma is spinning,” he said. This is the case in the big cities like Montreal, Toronto and Damascus, where the high demand makes shawarma businesses work well.

When it comes to donairs, restaurant workers cut the meat and put it in the fridge, and maybe freeze it. Then they warm it up in the oven when a customer shows up.

Some people argue that donairs aren’t as good as they used to be. Freezing the meat may be the reason. And the changes in recipe may be another. Traditionally, donair meat has to be a mix of about 70 per cent red meat and 30 per cent fat.

“Now, they do the opposite,” said Kostek. “They add bread to the mix to make it hold each together. It’s cheaper to put more fat in the mix.”

Reporter's take: What's the best donair, gyro or shawarma?

Not growing up with the sweet sauce considered integral to any Maritime donairs, Maan Alhmidi prefers tzatziki sauce. - File
Not growing up with the sweet sauce considered integral to any Maritime donairs, Maan Alhmidi prefers tzatziki sauce. - File

I have tried donair, shawarma and gyros in their original countries and in many Canadian cities.

My colleagues at The Chronicle Herald asked me about where to find the best version of this meal. There is no absolute answer to this question because this meal has different recipes in each country.

Halifax donairs are unique because they have a sweet sauce. I personally don’t like the sweet taste on donair, maybe because I didn’t grow up having it. Adding tzatziki sauce instead makes the meal perfect for me, and that is the Greek gyros that I like.

In Turkey, they make a similar meal mostly of chicken breasts. Yet they use thick bread and the meat is usually dry with no garlic sauce, making the wrap not as good as it could be. Turkish restaurants in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal tend to sell Syrian-style shawarma because “it’s what people want,” according to the restaurants’ owners.

In Syria, Lebanon and other Arab countries, shawarma is the most popular fast food. It is typically wrapped with thin pita bread and stuffed with shawarma meat, thin slices of tomato, shredded onions and garlic sauce. What makes the Syrian the best to me is the mix of hot spices that makes the chicken taste very good. The garlic sauce makes it even better.

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