Same Name, Different Claims

Having just come back from Halifax, I once again found myself hearing from many locals that the donair originated in Halifax and it can’t be beat. For those who don’t know, it’s a sloppy pita filled with spiced-and-roasted-and-shaved beef, served with tomatoes and onions (nothing else) and, finally, slathered in a signature sauce.  When I first heard about it, being a Torontonian, I figured it was just a variation on the gyros I would get on The Danforth, except made with beef instead of lamb & a different kind of sauce. That was silly of me.

King of Donair donairs

It was invented in the 1970s by Peter Gamoulakos. Originally from Greece, he arrived in Halifax in the ’50s and eventually started selling Greek gyros — a pita stuffed with grilled lamb and tzatziki sauce — from his pizza shop located off the Bedford Highway. But Nova Scotians didn’t take to his brand of Mediterranean street food so he replaced lamb with spiced beef and came up with a new recipe for the sauce, a sugar-heavy mixture made with evaporated milk, vinegar, and garlic powder. Trust me, in the wee hours, after a few — or a few too many — drinks, that sauce tastes like liquid crack cocaine. Not surprisingly, it soon became a cult delicacy, especially among the late-night club-kid crowd. So much so that in 2015 , Halifax city council voted to make it the city’s official food.

Oh, and they’re popular in Alberta, too.

For more on that, let’s hear from Omar Mouallem, who is a bona fide authority on such matters. (His award winning documentary, The Lebanese Burger Mafia, tells the story of the almost exclusively Lebanese-owned Burger Baron chain located almost exclusively in rural Alberta communities.) Here’s how he explained it in The Walrus in 2015. “Like shawarma and gyros, donairs are a meaty delicacy shaved from a rotisserie spit and wrapped in pitas—only spicier and sweeter. If you require further explanation, then you’re from neither the Maritimes (where they were invented, in the 1970s) nor Alberta (where they’re most consumed). Topped with a sweet, creamy sauce, they are a Canadian take on tzatziki-coated beef and lamb gyros, which themselves are a Greco-American take on centuries-old Turkish rotisserie lamb (a dish that also spawned a blander German variant called döner kebab).” Thank you, Omar.  There will be a quiz later.

An Edmonton-style donair

I have even heard that some Albertans claim the donair was invented there. (That is fake news.) Mouallem points to Chawki El-Homeira, who tasted his first donair shortly after arriving in Halifax from Lebanon in 1976. Two years later he moved to Edmonton, part of the migration of Maritimers looking for work in the oil sands. There, he set up shop, thinking that all those Nova Scotians would like a taste of home.

So, there are donairs in both cities. But wait again, anyone from Halifax would say the Alberta donairs are illegitimate, don’t deserve to even be called donairs… because they have lettuce in them. Okay, and sometimes even other toppings. And the pita is steamed instead of dripping in grease off the grill. And because an Albertan donair might even contain chicken. I can hear the gasps in Halifax from here.