Welcome to our series, Iconic Canadian Food! You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? Gabby Peyton will be sharing the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday this year. This month Gabby takes us to Halifax to introduce us to that city’s official food … drumroll … the Halifax donair.
The pride of Halifax is not a ship or Citadel Hill, it’s a sandwich. In 2015, the donair was named the official food of the Halifax Regional Municipality (part of a 43-page report), the only city in Canada to have one. While visitors demand lobsters, locals know the donair is the quintessential Haligonian dish. Just guess the one thing Anthony Bourdain wanted to eat when he visited Nova Scotia for the Devour! Food Film Festival.
So What’s a Donair?
So what exactly is a true Halifax donair? For those who haven’t tasted the hoagie-like hero, it’s not gyro or shawarma. The base of the dish is shaved ground beef that’s been slow-roasted on a vertical spit. The spiced meat is stratified atop a Lebanese-style pita, and then topped with diced tomato, raw onion and donair sauce. It’s all about the sauce: a combination of evaporated milk, vinegar, sugar and garlic (though the latter ingredient is contested among pizza shops). There’s no tzatziki and certainly no lettuce or cucumber.
The pita will probably never hold all the donair deliciousness inside, despite being tightly wrapped in tinfoil, and typically eaten on a street corner. Pizza Corner, to be exact. Any late-night imbiber will partake in the ritualistic gorging of donairs after a night on the Halifax bar scene.
With Turkish, German and Greek influences, the Halifax donair has an intriguing past echoing the multicultural landscape of Canadian cuisine … a delicious history beginning with a spit of rotating meat.
An Abbreviated Donair Pre-History
Halifax’s flagship dish has a savoury pre-history. Doner kebab is the grandfather of all pita-dependent renditions like donair, gyro, shawarma and even tacos el pastor. After an influx of Turkish migrants, the doner kebab was invented in Germany around 1972 in a Berlin kebab house. It consists of sliced lamb or beef with chopped lettuce, cabbage, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and an array of sauces.
Greece’s concurrent counterpart, the gyro, evolved from the doner kebab, but after centuries of disputes between Greeks and Turks, the name was changed, eliminating Turkish influence from cuisine. The gyro was popularized in New York and Chicago in the 1970s and consists of a loaf of ground beef and/or lamb served in a pita with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce.
Around the same time, Peter Gamoulakos opened Velos Pizza in Bedford, Nova Scotia with his sights set on a donair dynasty.
The Brothers’ Donairic Dynasty
The birthplace of the donair, Velos Pizza, opened in the 1960s, but donair lore relays it was at the King of Donair on Quinpool Road in Halifax that Gamoulakos perfected the recipe in 1973. Similar to the Chinese restaurateurs who added sugar to their traditional dishes to cater to the North American palate, Gamoulakos altered his recipe for the typical Haligonian. He substituted doner kebab’s lamb for beef and made his own version of tzatziki by swapping out the yogourt for evaporated milk and adding sugar.
Together with his brother John Kamoulakos (their last names are different because of an immigration kerfuffle), King of Donair became the epitome of late night indulging for Haligonians.
Nick Garonis purchased King of Donair in the 1980s and opened up a second location at the intersection of Blowers and Grafton Streets, which became the famous Pizza Corner, a Halifax institution. This is the place to go after a night of drinking for a slice or a donair. Pizza Corner’s late-night larder consisted of King of Donair, Sicilian Pizza and The European Food Shop, which John Kamoulakos opened on his own in 1987. King of Donair went through several owners before relocating in 2012; there are now five locations across Halifax, and it’s the very donair Anthony Bourdain ate.
In 2015, Peter and Tony Nahas brought the donair back to Pizza Corner after The European Food Shop closed. Johnny K’s is a nod to brother John, with a plaque on the wall in his honour.
They Put that Sauce on Everything
A sea of sweet donair sauce flows from every pizza place on the East Coast. Garlic fingers — an Atlantic Canada favourite made with pizza dough bathed in garlic butter and loaded with cheese — are traditionally served with the famous donair sauce for dipping. Donair sauce has one contentious ingredient, garlic. There have been full-on Twitter wars between pizza shop owners over whether to put garlic in donair sauce. It will probably never be settled.
In addition to garlic fingers and original donairs, the evolution of the sandwich has risen to the high end like many iconic Canadian foods. Robie Street Diner in Halifax created a donair donut, while Field Guide couldn’t keep donair steamed buns in stock. King of Donair has a donair egg roll. Donair soup was created by Super Duper Soup in Dartmouth and the iterations aren’t stopping any time soon.
Will Donairs Sweep the Nation?
Those outside the Atlantic Provinces wanting to try the piquant pitas, head west! Edmonton is the donair capital of Western Canada. With the influx of Maritime residents, places like Swiss Donair or Top Donair serve solid renditions, though many places put lettuce on the donair, a Haligonian no-no. If you’re in Ontario, Halifax Donair & Pizza have locations in Milton and Burlington, and the Fuzz Box in Toronto is known to put out a great version.
Unlike other Canadian iconic foods, the donair isn’t ubiquitous across the country … yet. But as a relatively young dish, could it be the next poutine? There’s no stopping the wave of milky donair sauce seeping through the tinfoil to the rest of Canada.
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Iconic Canadian Foods is written by Gabby Peyton. Gabby is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.