Doner Kebab, Shawarma and Gyros
Take a scroll in any Middle Eastern or Greek neighborhood and one of the most common sights you will see are restaurants featuring massive vertical rotisseries filled with large cones of meat spinning slowly around a flame. Sliced hot and fresh to order, cooks expertly cut thin shavings of meat, still crispy and juicy from the grill, for lines of eager customers. It’s enough to make anyone salivate on sight. Made from a variety of meat and called shawarma, gyros or doner, these grilled meat dishes might seem similar to the untrained eye–all three feature meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, wrapped in bread and served with a variety of vegetables, pickles and sauces. But doner kebabs, shawarma and gyros all hail from different areas of the world, each with their own unique flavor profiles. Despite their differences, these meat dishes have gained tremendous popularity and have spread far beyond their lands of origin, becoming international culinary sensations.
Although these three dishes hail from different areas of the world, most historians believe the Turkish doner was the first to utilize the vertical rotisserie cooking method. Tracing their origins to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the doner was originally cooked on a horizontal rotisserie (the cag kebab, slices of marinated lamb stacked and cooked in a horizontal rotisserie still exists today). The vertical rotisserie was popularized in Istanbul in the 19th century, likely the result of restaurateurs trying to conserve space. Descriptions of the doner kebab have been traced back to 1666 and depictions of the dish can be found in Ottoman paintings from 1616. By 1800, the doner kebab was already a popular dish in Istanbul. Often made with beef (although lamb and chicken are common as well), doner kebabs are made by marinating thin slices of meat in spices like cumin and paprika along with yogurt, before threading them on a large skewer. Slices of fat is often placed between alternating slices of meat to help baste the doner as it cooks.
Ottoman cuisine is highly influential and its culinary reach has spread as far as Mexico. Al pastor tacos, pork cooked on a vertical rotisserie similar to doner kebabs, were created by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (Lebanon was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire). A surprising country that has full heartedly embraced the doner kebab is Germany. There are 17,000 doner kebab restaurants in Germany alone, making it the definitive fast food of the country. The doner first gained popularity in Germany after World War Two when Turks immigrated to Germany (especially Berlin) in large numbers. Although there is some debate on who was the first Turk to introduce the doner kebab to Germany, most historians agree it was either Memhet Aygun in 1971 or Kadir Nurman in 1972, both successful Turkish restaurateurs.
Doner kebabs in Germany are commonly eaten with lots of vegetables: cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Doner kebab bread in Germany usually consists of a thick and fluffy bread called pide (frequently covered in black nigella and sesame seeds) cut into four corners, although an oval-shaped bread (similar to panini) is also used in some kebab shops. Most doner kebabs shops feature three essential sauces: a garlic sauce, a hot sauce and an herb sauce. The herb sauce consists of a yogurt base, while the hot sauce is tomato based. Berlin style doners are sometimes served with a spicy ketchup as well.
Because the Ottoman Empire ruled the Islamic world for centuries, its cuisine heavily influenced every area it touched. Shawarma is a clear example of that influence. Although it’s unclear when the shawarma was first introduced in the Arab world, most experts believe shawarma is an Arab version of the Turkish doner. The origin of the word shawarma comes from the Turkish word çevirme, which means "turning." An incredibly popular street food in the Arab world, the food delivery service Gousto compiled data that stated shawarma is the most tagged food on Instagram in the Middle East, receiving some 544,230 tags in several languages.
Shawarma is cooked using the same method as the Turkish doner kebab–stacks of marinated meats are placed on a large skewer before being cooked on a vertical rotisserie. A focus on the quality of the meat (lamb, beef, chicken) and the proprietary unique spice blends used by different shops are aspects that make shawarma stand out. Shawarma spicing can be quite robust, featuring cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric and baharat (a spice blend). Chicken shawarma are often marinated with chili paste, oregano and white vinegar, while beef shawarma usually consists of cinnamon, cardamom, thyme and nutmeg. Eaten either with pita or laffa bread, the thin shavings of meat are most often served with tahini (chicken is usually served with a garlic paste) along with onions and pickles. Arabic pita, yeast-leavened round flatbreads made from wheat flour, can opened to make a pocket, allowing shawarma ingredients to be stuffed directly into the pita. Laffa bread (a type of flatbread) is chewy and thicker than pita and used by some shawarma shops as a wrap for the ingredients. Pickles made from turnips or cucumbers play an important role in shawarma, giving it a tart flavor. Sauces also play an important role and one the most popular sauces in Lebanon for chicken shawarma is toum, a flavorful and airy sauce made from whipped oil and plenty of garlic.
For Middle Eastern style shawarma in NYC, try King Of Falafel & Shawarma in Queens.
Like shawarma, Greek gyros also traces their origins to Turkish doner kebabs. Gyros gained prominence in Athens in the 1950s due to immigrants from Turkey. Meaning turning or rotating in Greek, gyros are distinct from their Middle Eastern counterparts. First, although traditional Greek gyros are cooked in a similar fashion to shawarma or doner–layers of marinated and sliced meats are stacked on top of one another–the type of meat is very different. Although chicken gyros are available, the most popular version is made from pork seasoned with oregano and lemon juice. Gyros are often served with tomatoes, onions, tzatziki sauce (yogurt sauce made with strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic and herbs such as dill and mint) and sometimes even French fries, which are placed within the sandwich itself. Greek pitas, unlike Arabic pitas, are pocket less. Instead of stuffing the gyro ingredients into the pita, Greek gyro sandwiches are made by wrapping the pita around the meat, vegetables and tzatziki.
However, the version of gyros Americans are most familiar with, the dense and meatball like mixture sliced thin in a pita, actually originates in America. By the 1970s, although gyros were already popular in Greece, it was not a mass produced product. However, Greek immigrants in America saw an opportunity for mass production and in classic American fashion decided to industrialize the gyro on a larger scale. Kronos Food, a Chicago based company, pioneered the Greek American style gyro in 1975. Instead of thinly sliced pork or chicken, Kronos gyros are made with beef and lamb trimmings ground into a paste mixed with oregano, bread crumbs and other seasonings. This mixture is then formed into large cylinders, frozen and shipped to restaurants, where its cooked on location.
For authentic Greek style gyros in New York City, head to BZ Grill in Astoria, Queens.