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Atlantic Canada's Answer to the Kebab Is a Condensed Milk-Filled Beast

While it's similar to the kebab, shawarma, and gyro, the Halifax donair is in its own category of drunk food and it's the greasy gem of Canada's east coast.
March 20, 2015, 3:30pm
Vegan donair taco from The Food Wolf food truck. Photos courtesy Michael Dinn.

It's a meaty initiation that many visitors to Halifax have gone through. It begins with the question, "Have you had a donair yet?"

It's not a question of whether someone had one, but when. The visitor will then begin to ask questions like, "What kind of meat is it?" and "Why is it served with this sweet sauce?" followed by comments such as, "You put this on pizza and in eggrolls?"

Donair pizza from King of Donair.

Halifax donairs are a curiosity to those who have heard of them, and an object of devotion to those who grew up eating them on Canada's east coast. Years ago I wrote about them in a Canadian newspaper about the impact of the donair as it started to gain traction in Ontario and made its way to the town of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta. The comments were filled with Maritimers crying out, "That's not a donair!" My credibility as a journalist, let alone as a longtime resident on the east coast, was put into question because in their words, I didn't understand what a donair was. The story still pops up on social media every few months with questions from the rest of Canada—or what we in Atlantic Canada call "come from away-ers"—asking what is the deal with this late-night street snack.

Donair poutine from Cheese Curds.

The first thing to explain is what it isn't. It isn't a doner kebab, the popular UK (and German) late-night snack of seasoned meat with tomatoes and onions popularized by the late Mahmut Aygun at his Berlin snack stall nearly 50 years ago. The Halifax donair is also not its Hellenistic cousin, the gyro, which is topped with tzatziki and sometimes stuffed with fries. And no, it is not a shawarma, finished off with pickled turnips and hot peppers. Yes, these are all wraps stuffed with meat that's shaved from a spinning rotisserie and wrapped in a soft pita. But that's like saying all fried rice dishes are the same to someone who is Chinese or Malay. It doesn't work, and it's kind of insulting to everyone involved.

As far as we know the Halifax donair was invented sometime between 1971 and 1973 at Velo's Pizza in Bedford, a suburb just north of Halifax.

A proper Halifax donair contains an amalgam of spiced pork and beef. It is garnished with diced raw onions and tomatoes, nothing else. The real clincher is the donair sauce, a sweet beast made from condensed or evaporated milk, vinegar, sugar, and onion and garlic powders. The donair is finally wrapped in a pita, preferably a Lebanese-style one, and not the puffier Greek variety. It's a messy yet beautiful meeting of tangy, milky sauce; a sharp, watery crunch from the onions; and salty, greasy, mysterious meat. There is as much sauce on the sandwich as your fingers and chin.

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It would be a song played in the joints that cover the unofficial tourist attraction known as Pizza Corner in downtown Halifax. At 2 AM the bars begin to belch out patrons into the streets, many of them hankering for a donair. It's a scene that plays out every Friday and Saturday night, and has for decades on the corners of Grafton and Blowers: lines go out the door from the pizza joints that serve out hundreds of slices a night, but the real champs are the donair kings and queens unwrapping foil and biting into their donairs. It says to other patrons: Either I am going home alone or I am going home with someone who won't care that I have donair breath. Game on.

Donair eggs benedict from The Foggy Goggle Restaurant. The plain donair.

As far as we know the Halifax donair was invented sometime between 1971 and 1973 at Velo's Pizza in Bedford, a suburb just north of Halifax. Velo's, which later became part of the King of Donair chain that dominates the city's fast food scene with its donairs and pizza, was operated by Greek brothers John and Peter Kamoulakos. Legend has it that the brothers were having a hard time selling gyros to a clientele who may not have been receptive to the Greek specialty, let alone the tzatziki lending a savoury and saucy kick.

Canucks who reside on Canada's east coast see the donair as part of their culture and culinary language. Donairs are in grocery stores, sandwich shops, pizza and take-out joints, food trucks, and fancy restaurants. There are donair egg rolls, donair nachos, donair tacos, donair sausages, and even vegan donairs.

Donair nachos from Freeman's Little New York.

Michael Dinn, a computer consultant by day and donair-lover at night, has been blogging about his love for the east coast specialty since 2000 on Donair.Org. "It's a Halifax thing, and people really like to say that something came from their town," he says. But the real pleasure comes from introducing them to out-of-towners. "It's fun to explaining that they are made of donair meat and donair sauce, and yet you can't explain what exactly is in it. A donair hits the spot at two in the morning. It's the end of the night; you associate it with having a good time."

Donair burger from Cheese Curds.

But donairs aren't just for drunken revelries; they've also gone upscale. Ceilidh Sutherland and Dan Vorstermans of Field Guide restaurant have their version—a mix of pork, lamb, and lamb liver stuffed in fluffy Chinese-style baos and drizzled in a house-made donair sauce complete with from-scratch sweetened condensed milk. "People seemed to be obsessed with comfort food, street food, greasy food, but we've done it a bit more refined context," says Sutherland. "Why nobody was doing this with donairs yet is crazy, so we decided to make that our signature dish."

No matter its origin, fashion, or price point, after more than 40 years of filling the bellies of people out on the east coast, the donair is just as comfortable within its new high-end renditions and low-end origins. And we will always be comfortable and proud to eat and share them with whoever graces our shores.