The east coast Halifax Donair specialty is something like a gyro, but all beef – no lamb. Rather than the traditional tzatziki sauce, donairs use “donair sauce”.
Now I am pretty sure 95% percent of you are saying: a what? Well I was in that group as well, until the summer of 2015 that is, when I took a road trip to the Maritimes. And of course I looked up specialty foods I had to try. One of them was the Halifax Donair sandwich…and I thought to myself: a what? I am so happy to have been enlightened and by the end of this post I hope you will be salivating for one too.
History of the Donair
Most people in North America are familiar with a Greek gyro sandwich, a sliced lamb meat sandwich you can find n some fast food courts. Well, there is also the Turkish Döner kebab, a seasoned meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The original Döner dates back to the 19th century from the Ottoman Empire.
So what does that have to with a Donair from Halifax, Nova Scotia? Well, when Peter Gamoulakos immigrated to Canada in 1959 he tried to sell traditional gyros but the idea of lamb scared the locals away. So in 1973 he adapted the recipe and made it with beef, some more local spices. The Donair sandwich was a hit, so much so that in 2015 Halifax named the Donair the official food of the city.
Yes, the donair is as Canadian as its famous counterpart, the Caesar drink. It’s like a Bloody Mary but better, with Clamato juice (a mix of clam and tomato juice. You can learn more about the Caesar drink here.
PIN IT FOR LATER ! https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/266275396702541564
Kind of ironic that the Donair was named the official food of the city in 2015 when that is exactly the year I had my first Donair. Halifax was a day stop during my 9 day road trip to the Maritimes (lots of pics from that trip here). I was a little disappointed to see the small fast food establishments that sold it. My expectations were low. Well I literally ate my words: that was one really good sandwich. The meat was unique and good, I liked the thick pita bread and the sauce.
Yes you can make a Donair at home
But I never thought this sandwich could be done at home. Well yes it can! The meat is basically a meatloaf. But to get the fine dense meat texture you pulverize the whole meatloaf mix in a food processor first. Once it is cooked and cooled overnight, you can slice it up in the traditional rectangle shape. And then you fry each piece up into a crisp meat.
Now you get yourself a pita bread or a flatbread, pile on the meat, some chopped onions and tomatoes. The final touch is a healthy dose of the donair sauce. And let me tell you, I was shocked when I saw what this deliciously sweet sauce was made out of:condensed milk, vinegar and garlic salt. What?
Yeah, that sauce sounds crazy but it is so good. You will need a piece of aluminium foil to warp up that baby of a sandwich in order to enjoy every bite. Otherwise you will find yourself covered with bits and pieces of this yummy and filling sandwich. Who wants one?
More Canadian Goodies
I found this Donair recipe in one of my now favorite cookbooks: More Than Poutine. It was written by Marie Porter, a Canadian Expat who now lives south of the border. She missed certain Canadian foods she just could not source in her new home country. So she decided to write a book and asked around what other Canadian Expats missed eating. And what perfect timing as Canada celebrates 150 years this year.
Want to discover Canadian classics? Find them all here in the More Than Poutine: Favourite Foods from My Home and Native Land cookbook by Marie Porter.
Click below to get the More Than Poutine cookbook …
in the US in Canada
Now the book contains all the classics I am familiar with like tourtière, butter tarts, naniamo bars, Montreal bagels and smoke meat of course, those oat cookies I still want to make that I had in Cape Breton, bannock, cretons, pea soup…..OK I could like go one for a long time.
One can find a whole bunch of cleverly renamed copy cat recipes too like Deep and Delicious cakes, Saint-Hubert BBQ sauce, Jos Louis cakes…and like every Canadian candy bar out there.
What shocked me was how many Canadian food I had never heard about. We are such a large country it makes sense to have local specialties……but I never heard of green onion cake, ginger beef, rappie pie, pease pudding, honey dill sauce, or Beep juice.
I am going to enjoy exploring this book!
The Halifax Donair
- 1 Medium onion
- 3 lbs Lean ground beef 1 1/2 kg
- 1 Tbsp Corn starch 15 ml
- 1 Tbsp Garlic powder 15 ml
- 2 tsp Ground black pepper 10 ml
- 2 tsp Oregano 10 ml
- 1 1/2 tsp Cayenne powder 7 ml
- 1 1/2 tsp Salt 7 ml
- 1 tsp Paprika 5 ml
- 1 can Sweetened condensed milk 300 ml
- 1/3 cup White vinegar 75 ml
- 1 tsp Garlic powder 5 ml
- 12 Pitas
- 1 Onion thinly sliced
- 1 Tomato chopped
- Preheat oven to 325 F (160 C). Peel and chop onion, pulse in a food processor until pureed.
- Dump onion puree into the middle of 2-3 layers of paper towels or cheesecloth; gather the edges and squeeze all of the liquid from the onions. Return onion solids to the food processor, discard liquid.
- Add about 1 lb of the ground beef, the corn starch, spices and salt to the food processor, process until it’s a creamy paste. Add another lb of beef, process again until smooth. Add remaining beef, process once again until smooth, scraping down the sides of the food processor to ensure that everything is smooth. Form meat mixture into a large log shape, place onto a broiling pan/rack. Bake for 2 hours, flipping loaf over at the halfway point.
- Once 2 hours are up, remove from oven, allow to cool to room temperature. Wrap cooled loaf in plastic wrap, chill for at least 8 hours, or overnight.
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk, vinegar, and garlic powder. Use a whisk to mix together the sauce ingredients - it’ll take some time, but it will eventually come together. Once well combined and hick, transfer to a covered container, chill until use.
- To Assemble: Brush pitas with a little water, heat in a hot frying pan until warmed through.
- Heat a little vegetable oil in a frying pan. Slice donair meat into 1/4" thick slices, add to pan and reheat until desired texture (If you like the crispy edges, cook a little longer than you would if you don’t!). Pile reheated meat on warm pita, drizzle generously with sauce, top with onions and tomatoes. Wrap in wax paper, parchment paper, or foil to hold it together while eating, serve immediately.
The products featured in this post were provided to me free of cost. Any personal opinions reflected in this post are my own and without influence.
I woud like to know what, approximately, is the diameter of * a big log* ? 🙂
Hi Jean, ha ha funny question but a good one. If memory serves the log was a 3.5 or 4 inches wide, but I had reduced the recipe by a third.
I lived in Vancouver for a year, but apparently the wrong coast for these lovely sandwiches! I do remember getting my first taste of a Naniamo bar, though 🙂
Really, I never knew you lived for a year in Vancouver, how cool! Alas yes though the wrong coast for this one lol. But the sushi is Vancouver is great!
This has made me so hungry! I am definitely going to have to try making this!
Thanks Caroline, let me know how it turns out 🙂
I love a good gyro, and this looks just as good if not better. The beef “roast” looks like something fun to make. My family would love these. Thanks!
Thanks MJ it is amazing to find out it can be done at home, yep a bit like a roast or giant meatloaf 🙂
I want a big bite of those, looks really delicious, now I am intrigued got to make one at home.
I looked forward to every big bite 🙂 totally a great recipe to try!
I hadn’t heard of it either but that does look good! I have to admit, I do love a kebab, with the garlic, onions and sauce all slathered on so this sounds right up my street! Thanks for sharing 🙂
It’s a great discovery and so fun to know it can be made at home. LOL it’s all in the sauce!
Oh man, as an expat Canadian who grew up in Cape Breton and spent many a (ahem, drunken) weekend at Halifax’s pizza corner I have a SERIOUS craving for donairs now! I do make my own now that I live in Scotland, but I use equal parts ground beef and ground lamb for a more middle eastern traditional taste. Gosh… oh the sauce! Salivating here!
Haha you moved from ‘the other Scotland” to actual Scotland? So cool. Cape Breton is just stunning, we drove it. Half beef and half lamb sounds so delicious! Yes the sauce is so good!
Hey, FUN FACT ABOUT ME – DONAR/DONER = MY FAVORITE THING EVER. Specifically CHICKEN DONER but it’s not as popular as BEEF or LAMB Donar/Doner!!!!!!! I actually put a DONER maker on my wedding registry and it was $6000. It was 1/2 a joke, but 1/2 of me really wanted someone to love me so much and BUY IT FOR ME – hahahaha! It totally would have taken up the entire kitchen though, LMFAO! THANKFULLY there are TONS of doner places here in LA so … My cravings can be fed, no problem!
I had no idea you were obsessed with doners! Ha love that you had t on your registry….but until you get it , or run out of gas, you can make it at home easy! I have been putting the most expensive massage chair I can find every year (5 digits) on my xmas list and I STILL HAVE NOT GOTTEN IT as a gift. Maybe this year ?????
I WILL PRAY THAT THIS IS THE YEARRR!!!!! We just bought a reclining chair the other day… This is the year of CHAIRS!! lol!
reclining legs crossed XXXXX
I’ve never had a Donair, but it looks like a dish I’d like to try. Reason to finally visit the Maritimes? Not that I need another reason. I’m already itching to get up there. I liked Doener in Germany and chicken gyros in Greece, and this seems similar to both — just different meat. Basically, if you wrap anything in a pita, I will eat it.
Your my kinda girl “eat anything wrapped in pita” lol. Yes it is a reason to go…well one more. it is just gorgeous in the part of the world.
This dish is really quite similar to a gyro, Evelyne. Excellent recipe. Can I use red onion instead of white one?
Yes it is very similar to a gyros and of course, red onions is a great choice 🙂
I just cannot imagine meat and condenced milk. That must be quite unique!
Well it is just a touch of sauce on top of the sandwich and the vinegar cuts it a bit. It’s a really good combo.
Ooh yes I’ve had a donair! It was good but I was surprised at how sweet the sauce was. I never thought I could make it at home though so thanks for this recipe! 😀
Yes the sauce is a surprise, but it works 🙂 And yeah I was shocked it could be made at home…very easily.
Yup. A WHAT???!!! 🙂 Never heard of this. Sounds really good, though — like the idea of it. Really fun read — thanks.
Ha ha, you learn something new every day, this was it!
Someday you have to come here and try the real street food donair or gyros! Your tweak looks absolutely perfect!
I would love to try them right in Greece 🙂 I cannot take credit for this recipe however, it is the Halifax Nova Scotia way 🙂
what a great book with a wealth of recipes, I am waiting for the green onion cake, you have to do this I need to see it :). Lovely recipe and I did not notice it was ground beef from the first look!! Clever.
It is a great book. I’ll email you the recipe for the green onion cake….I would not have permission to reprint that one anyways 🙂
Lots of gyros around here but this is new to me and it looks delicious! Beef like meatloaf instead of lamb sounds great to me. Thanks for sharing, this is a must try!
Thanks Pam I hope you d try it…and there is lots of leftovers lol.
WHOA, that looks freaking fantastic! WANT!!!
Thanks 😀 and they really are!
One more question…did you place the whole log of meat directly on the rack or the pan? I am wondering if the meat would be stuck on the rack…
Yes I did, right on a non stick baking sheet (parchment would work great). There was barely any liquid and it slid right off 🙂
is sweetened condensed milk a must? Can I use something else instead?
Well, for the authentic Canadian Donair, yes…..or a substitute, I saw dairy free or vegan sub recipes out there.
o my…that’s my husband’s favourite’s favourite food! I must surprise him with this homemade version one day!
Really, wow what a coincidence! Let me know how is turns out and if he likes it.