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What is the Difference between Shawarma and Donair? [Split from Western Canada Board]

Oh, you just opened up a can of worms that I've been lugging about for years. What is the difference between shawarma and donair? In New York we had shawarma. (We had gyro too but the less said about that the better.) Shawarma was lamb or at least it was supposed to be. Sometimes it was turkey pretending to be lamb. Either way I knew what was what. Now I'm in Edmonton and, as you said, we have donair not shawarma. I have no idea what donair is made out of. I can't tell by looking at it or by the scent. What are those big hunks of revolving meat made out of? Do I really want to eat some of that?

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  1. "Donair" is ground meat- beef or lamb or a combo. Usually beef. Shawarma is meat that is not ground, chicken, beef or lamb.

    The meat used for donair and gyro is to my experience exactly the same. Gyros use yogurt-based tzatziki; donair uses tahini, mayo-based "garlic sauce" or that abomination from Halifax that they call "sweet sauce" but which the rest of the country should call "unfit for human consumption." But that's just my opinion.

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    1. I always thought that "Doner kebap" (pardon the lack of accents) was Turkish, just as "Gyro" was Greek for just about the same dish, eaten in Greece, Turkey, Germany, Canada, and many other places.

      An analogous situation is "hummous" eaten with equal relish in Israel, Palestine, and other places.

    2. Donner, Shwarma, and Gyro all refer to the way the meat is cooked - upright on a spit. This method of cooking orignated in southern Turkey and was refered to as 'chevirme', meaning "rotation," or, "turning". 'Chevirme' was pronounced 'shwarma' by Arabic speakers. Similarly, 'doner' comes from the Turkish verb 'donmek', meaning "to turn". This cooking method is referred to as 'gyro' in Greek, meaning "to turn," also (think 'gyroscope'). Doner/shwarma/gyro probably originated in southern Turkey and was quickly adopted into the cuisine of northern Syria. By and large, upright roasted meat is an Anatolian, Levantine, and Greek tradition. The regional differences in all of these dishes stem from the local fixings that are served with them. In Aleppo (my personal favorite), for instance, it tends to be quite spicy, served with pickles, and after the meat is rolled in the bread with the fixings the whole thing is dipped in the drippings and toasted on a griddle. Turks tend to forgo the dip in fat and use creamier fillings (though this is sometimes seen in Syria as well). Greeks tend to slather theirs in the ubiquitous tadziki.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Trencher man

        Etymology aside, "donair" and "shawarma" refer to different types of meat, in North America at least. As I said before, donair/gyro meat is ground; shawarma is not.

        1. re: John Manzo

          No, you are mistaken, they don't refer to different types of meat in North America (or the Middle East for that matter). Again, it is the method - meat roasted on an upright spit then sliced off - that makes the dish shwarma/doner/gyro.

          1. re: Trencher man

            Please pay closer attention. I'm not denying that ETYMOLOGICALLY there is a confluence among these terms, but PRACTICALLY SPEAKING, a "shawarma" place will sell a ground product called "donair" and a non-ground product called "shawarma." It will not sell "gyros" unless it's Greek.

            1. re: John Manzo

              No, in North America, I have eaten at many (good) places where a ground meat product is referred to as either shwarma, doner, or gyro and a non-ground meat product is also referred to as either shwarma, doner, or gyro. There is no real consitency - it depends on the vendor, the product they can get, and what name the product will sell best under. For instance, I've been to restaurants owned by Lebanese, but they sell shwarma and call it 'gyro' because that's what their customer base is most familiar with. By and large, you are correct that only Greek joints will sell gyro but, again, this is not wholly consistent.

            2. re: Trencher man

              My experiences in France, Switzerland, and Germany are that donair/doner is ground meat while shwarma is made from slices of meat. Some places specialize in only one type.

              Could you expand on what you've found in the Middle East?

            3. re: John Manzo

              In Toronto, at least, it is possible to get authentic gyros and doner kebab, which is not the processed & ground gyro/donair meat you find in most Albertan/Ontarian food courts. Authentic gyros/doner kebab meat closely resembles shawarma.

              Messini on the Danforth serves an authentic Greek version with your choice of chicken or pork. An authentic gyro in a pita usually includes fries in the pita, along with tzatziki, unlike the gyros in pita served in most Canadian food courts. http://www.messini.ca/gallery.php

              There are also several Turkish kebab shops in Toronto with rotating stacks of doner showing through their storefront windows. I'm guessing it's probably lamb. It's definitely not ground meat.

              1. re: phoenikia

                Can you name some of these kebab shops with Doner (perhaps the Toronto board would be more appropriate)? When I was in Toronto over the summer I had a had time finding doner, but found plenty of schwarma.

                1. re: Humbucker

                  Babos Donerpoint on Eglinton and Caledonia is one shop, but it isn't one of the ones I've walked past downtown. Haven't tried it yet.
                  Istanbul Kebab House is near Dundas and McCaul.
                  Istanbul Grill is near Bathurst&Wilson.

          2. In my experience, the meat used for both shwarma and donair can vary widely - both are essentially meat slices cut from a slab that rotates vertically in a special roaster.

            The difference comes down to a) the ethnic background of the restaurant, b) where you are, and c) the type of toppings added to the sliced meat. Also, I've only seen the ground meat variation for donair, while all the shwarma I've had consisted of meat chunks.. though this may be different outside of Canada.

            There's also the aforementioned abomination...errr... sweet sauce that East Coasters insist makes for authentic donair, but I think it's just their way of being unique. :)

            Either one is very very very tasty, though.

            1. I've had plenty of donairs in Edmonton, and have recently discovered shawarma here in Dubai (so my shawarma sampling is not as large as my donair sampling). The differences for me:

              1. Donairs are ground meat in Edmonton, Shawarma is "whole" meat in Dubai
              2. "Donair juice" is sweet in Edmonton, and there's lots of it, in Dubai, "Shawarma juice" is more yogurty, not sweet
              3. You get the option of cheese and different veg on donairs, on shawarma here, it was tomatoes, "shawarma juice", meat
              4. Shawarmas are grilled after wrapping; donairs have the meat heated up before wrapping
              5. Shawarma wrapping is much, much thinner than the pita you get with Edmonton donairs
              6. Shawarmas are smaller

              I was very careful to say "Dubai Shawarma" and "Edmonton Donair" as YMMV based on location and name. I have also never had a donair in Dubai or a shawarma in Edmonton, so I'm interested to see how my comparisons hold up.

              1. The donair originated in Halifax (and shortly afterwards in Alberta), while in Ontario the gyro was the pita wrapped version of choice. These differences being primarily due to the Lebanese population in Nova Scotia, and Greeks in Toronto. In the early 70's the donair of NS was all-beef with the sweet sauce, while the Ontario Gyro a mix of lamb and beef with the garlic sauce (tzatziki). Since then a larger middle-eastern influence has spread across the country creating several versions of each, many of which called the shawarma.