The Canadian snack with a secret sauce
The story of donair, a food that should be available EVERYWHERE
Hello, Snackers. We’re heading to Halifax in today’s episode of Holiday Week Reruns. This post originally ran in September (for paid subscribers), although there are a couple of updates below.
I’ll also note that the donair is high on my personal list of snacks I’ve never tried but want to eat RIGHT NOW. Enjoy the post and I’m telling you: watch the video at the end.
Donair images via Donair King. Snack Stack illustration.
Think of it as the Canadian sibling to gyros, doner kebabs, and shawarma. Take thin slices of a spiced beef, shaved off from a vertical rotisserie, and put it in a warm pita. Add sliced or diced tomato and onion. Finally—and this is key, the part that makes it a distinctive dish—cover the fillings with a generous layer of a thin, sweet sauce made with either sweetened condensed milk or evaporated milk (some places use a combination of the two).
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
The story of a dish is almost always one of adaptation and evolution. Switch up the way you slice a potato and suddenly you’ve invented potato chips (or so the mythology goes). Put cheese on top of corn chips, because those are the things you have in the kitchen, and you’ve created the first nachos. That adaptation and evolution is especially common when a dish crosses borders or skips across an ocean, its makers altering the recipe to better fit the tastes of their new surroundings.
In the 1970s, a Greek immigrant named Peter Gamoulakos had a small shop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he sold gyros—but sales weren’t going too well. His customers weren’t into the flavor of the lamb or the traditional, tangy tzatziki sauce, two ingredients that were, well, kind of essential to the dish. So he started experimenting, trying variations, and eventually hit upon a winner. Instead of lamb, he used spiced beef; for the sauce, he created something sweeter and thinner, with a base of evaporated milk, to which he added sugar, garlic, and vinegar. And this time, customers loved it.
Gamoulakos called it “donair” (a play on “doner”) and in 1973, he opened a shop called King of Donair in Halifax. It was such a success that King of Donair eventually expanded (it currently has seven locations) and other shops started making their own versions—a fact that Gamoulakos capitalized on by setting up a business called Mr. Donair to serve as a sort of donair-industry supply shop.
December update: I found this ad in a 1978 edition of the Ottawa Citizen. Donair: the profitable food of tomorrow!
In 1991, the tale of the donair took a dramatic turn, when Gamoulakos died and the business, in which his brother, John Kamoulakos, was a partner, fell apart. The Toronto Star told the whole tale in 2015:
When Peter died in 1991, a dispute erupted between the Gamoulakos and Kamoulakos families, and relationships were irreparably damaged. In the years since, the growing cultlike obsession with the donair has spawned copious stories, many of which describe John as a co-creator.
The problem? “That’s false,” said Leo Gamoulakos, Peter’s son. Leo, 51, says John didn’t come into the picture until later. Leo feels his uncle has inserted himself into the history inaccurately, and he has made it his mission to ensure his father gets due credit.
Familial squabbling aside, the legend and stature of the donair has only risen (although shawarma sales are still slow in Halifax), and just about every account these days gives credit to Peter Gamoulakos and King of Donair as the originators—they even get even star in a magnificent rap version of the story, which you can (should, must) watch below.
In 2015, donair received the ultimate local honor, being named the official food of Halifax, although it was somewhat contentious, with the city’s mayor casting the deciding vote after a 43-page (!!!) report on the matter by city staff failed to offer a conclusive recommendation. (You can read that, and I repeat, 43-page report on whether or not to make donair the city’s official food in full, glorious PDF form over on the Wayback Machine.) “It is like Montreal smoked meat or beaver tails in Ottawa; the donair, as a food, belongs to Halifax,” city councilor Linda Mosher told The Vancouver Sun. (It also made me go, “WAIT, WHAT’S A BEAVER TAIL IN OTTAWA?!” Turns out it’s a pastry. I’ll have to do a post about it soon.)
Anyway, here’s Canadian rapper Quake Matthews singing (well, rapping) the praises of donair from inside King of Donair. Sound up.
Get it here
You can find them all over Canada, but especially in Halifax, where the dish’s original home, King of Donair, is still very much in business.
Will you like it?
Notes and stray thoughts
A few months ago, someone set a new record by eating 24 donairs in one sitting.
People from Nova Scotia are sometimes called Bluenosers, a nickname that goes back to the letters of a grumpy Loyalist clergyman from the late 1700s. Also, the demonym for people from Halifax is Haligonians, which is breaking my brain.
Back in the 1990s, shawarma had a brief period of immense popularity in the Philippines.
In the small Midwestern town where I attended college, all the independent pizzerias sold gyro pizza, which is delicious and should be more widely available.
King of Donair sells merch, because of course they do, including more than a dozen shirts and this amazing jacket. My birthday is coming.
It's fascinating to learn little history about different foods. I enjoyed reading this edition of yours.