What’s the difference between a gyro and a shawarma?

These two Mediterranean treats have a lot in common.
A shawarma sandwich
A shawarma sandwich (Photo: cyclonebill/Flickr)

The shawarma and the gyro. You may have seen these luscious meats wrapped in pita and sold in a food court, on the street or in a restaurant and wondered, “what is that, exactly?” Well, we’re here to tell you.

Both are packed slivers of marinated meat that are slowly spit-roasted on a rotating skewer at very high temperatures – allowing for the meat to cook in its own fat and gain an unparalleled succulence. Both are considered to be their respective king of the street, a common staple for the working man. Both are derived from the Turkish Kebab Doner, and both are generally served on a flatbread or right on the plate.

But here’s where they diverge: The gyro is a Greek dish (perhaps the country’s greatest contribution to mankind since democracy), and usually uses pork or lamb. The meat in gyros is typically lamb or beef; it’s seasoned with a blend of oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, and is ground down and made into a loaf. The garnishes comprise tomatoes, onion and tzatziki sauce, a garlic yogurt seasoned with cucumbers and dill.

A traditional gyro.
Traditional gyro toppings are tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce. (Photo: jeffreyw/Flickr)

The shawarma’s origins, on the other hand, are less definitive; the meat is usually lamb, chicken or turkey and consists of chunks of meat (rather than a loaf). The seasoning is also quite different and is based on turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves – with many different variations on this basic mix.

However, what really sets the shawarma apart from the gyro is the garnish, or rather, the extent of the garnish. The Israeli shawarma, for example, offers generous servings of hummus, tahini and, perhaps most important, pickled mangoes.

Condiments such as pickled vegetables are a big part of what makes a shawarma special. (Photo: Weimin Liu/Flickr)

Each patron is also allowed to stack up on a wide range of salads from a salad buffet such as purple cabbage, pickled carrots, eggplant (either fried or mixed with mayo), pickles, raw onion and spicy cauliflower. French fries are also offered in most places.

So, what’s the secret to these delightful sandwiches? Well, in the case of the shawarma, Emil, the proprietor of Emil’s Shawarma, a bustling spot in Haifa, says it’s the main ingredient. “The secret to shawarma is the meat. We let the meat do the talking and don’t add anything that doesn’t need to be there,” he tells From The Grapevine.

The same can be said for the gyro, especially since it can’t rely on all the condiments to dress it up. But either way, you can’t go wrong – they’re both delicious.

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