Today, we are going to explore one of Greece’s most iconic dishes, the gyro! Gyro is a special Greek delicacy served as a main dish. Gyro (or gyros) consists of meat, onion, tomato and a tzatziki sauce served wrapped in a soft pita bread.
In Greek, the word gyro or γύρο (pronounced YEE-roh) means “turn, revolution or circle” and is a calque of the Turkish word döner, from dönmek, also meaning “turn”.
It was originally called ντονέρ (pronounced [doˈner]) in Greece. The word ντονέρ was criticized in the mid-1970s Greece for being Turkish. The word gyro or gyros was already in use in English by at least 1970, and along with γύρος in Greek, eventually came to replace doner kebab for the Greek version of the dish.
Gyro is probably the most often mispronounced food name. Even its fans usually do not get the pronunciation correctly. Whether it is mispronounced as jee-rohs, jai-rohs, gee-rohs, the correct Greek pronunciation is yee-rohs. The varied names have geographical origins from different peoples’ languages. Whether you pronounce it “yeer-ro”, “jai-ro” or “gear-o,” gyros are a tasty and popular Greek wrap that you don’t need to be able to pronounce to enjoy.
What is a gyro?
Gyros are sandwiches made with thinly-sliced, seasoned lamb, beef or chicken, and wrapped in a pita or flatbread. The traditional version is topped with onions and tomatoes. Tzatziki, the white creamy sauce that is usually added to gyros, is made with strained yogurt, cucumbers, salt, pepper, garlic and dill. Lemon juice, parsley and mint are additional add-ons. Some places opt for sour cream-based tzatziki instead of yogurt.
The meat for gyros that is purchased through a manufacturer is run through a grinder. The ground meat (typically ground beef or ground lamb) is then shaped into cylinders by hydraulic pressure. These cylinders are then frozen. When it comes time to cook it, the meat is usually roasted on a vertical spit or electric rotisserie. It is then sliced into thin pieces and added to the pita.
Most food historians generally agree the name “gyro” and the current wraps are both recent inventions originating in New York during the early 1970s. Gyros, as we know them today, are thought to have evolved from the traditional “doner kebab” of Turkey.
History of the gyro
Grilling a vertical spit of stacked meat slices and cutting it off as it cooks was developed in Bursa by Turks in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, and called doner kebab (Turkish: döner kebap). Following World War II, doner kebab made with lamb was present in Athens and introduced by immigrants from Anatolia and the Middle East.
A distinct Greek variation developed, often made with pork and served with tzatziki sauce, which later became known as gyros.
By 1970, the gyro wrapped sandwiches were already a popular fast food in Athens, as well as in various parts of the United States. At that time, although vertical rotisseries were starting to be mass-produced in the US, the stacks of meat were still hand-made.
Difference between gyros and souvlaki
In the Middle East, the gyro is termed shawarma and in Mexico, it is known as tacos al pastor. Souvlaki which though has a lot of similar ingredients with gyro is basically a different dish, which has its own set of terminology as well.
Gyro is a special Greek delicacy served as a main dish, whereas souvlaki is also a Greek dish by origin but more of a fast food. Gyro is also known as shawarma and doner kebab. On the other hand, souvlaki is often termed as shish kebab and kalamaki (in Athens). Gyro is prepared in the form of long meat strips, primarily pork; souvlaki is prepared in the form of meat cubes.
While preparing gyro, processed meat or thin meat strips are used in large cones for cooking. On the other hand, souvlaki though originally prepared with pork in Greece, has been prepared with chicken, lamb, beef and even fish in more recent times.
Preparation of the gyro meat
The preparation of gyro starts with slicing the meat thinly, then it is seasoned and placed on a large erect spatter. The spatter keeps turning before an electric burner or some other source of heat. In case the meat doesn’t have enough fat, extra strips of fat are added so that the meat retains the moistness and crispness while roasting.
The rate of roasting needs to be adjusted from time to time for a juicy cooking. Once ready, the surface of the meat is sliced into crispy, thin shavings served in a roll of grilled pita with butter, salad toppings and sauces. A little bit of extra condiments, which include red paprika and pepper may be added.
In contrast, for preparing souvlaki, the meat is chopped into 1-inch cubes and then marinated in a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice with oregano, thyme and other Greek spices overnight. The next morning, the meat cubes are skewed on little reeds or wooden skewers, broiled on charcoal and then served with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Souvlaki is served with a lot of extra condiments like vegetables, potatoes and an array of sauces.
Of course, for the home chefs who don’t have a spatter or a vertical burner of sorts, there are different ways of cooking the meat at home. One way is to coarsely grind your meat, pack it tightly into a loaf pan and bake. After baking, thinly slice the meat. A really cool trick is to slice the meat, season it and skewer it, then lay it over a cookie sheet or a pan and roast it in the oven on high heat.
Another way, which we used in our recipe is to thinly slice the meat and then pan fry it in a pan on high heat. Of course, if you have side or back burner on your outdoor grill with a rod that rotates, then you can easily use that as the most traditional form.
Gyro vs. shawarma
The gyro and the shawarma are two staples of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines that have gone mainstream around the world. But even though some gyro-producing companies can make enough meat to crank out 600,000 sandwiches a day, we often don’t inquire about what goes into either of these dishes.
At first glance, gyros and shawarma look like the same thing. The meat for both is shaved from a large cone that slowly turns and roasts all day, cooking the meat in its own juices. And below this surface of similarity, the two meals share a common ancestor: the doner kebab.
The meat for a gyro is a blend, usually some combination of lamb and beef, formed into a loaf before being roasted on a spit. The meat is sliced off and served on a thin Greek pita before getting topped with tomatoes, onion, and tzatziki. Plus, a little hot sauce might be added to give this warm, flavorful sandwich an extra kick.
The first main difference is the meat. The shawarma meat cone is made from packed-down slices of meat—often chicken, sometimes lamb, and occasionally even goat. A shawarma also requires a different preparation than a gyro, as its meat is marinated for as long as a day in a variety of seasonings and spices, like allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, dried lime, vinegar, and cardamom.
There’s also a wider array of toppings in shawarma’s wheelhouse, including tahini, tabbouleh, fattoush, cucumber, and hummus—but no tzatziki. And while it can be served wrapped up in a large pita, it can also come stuffed inside of hollow pita bread.
There’s more flexibility around cooking a shawarma than a gyro. While it’s widely agreed upon that a gyro is lamb and/or beef topped with tomato, onion, tzatziki (and maybe a little hot sauce), all served on a thin pita, a shawarma allows for more wiggle room. Maybe it’s made with chicken, or maybe goat; maybe it’s got some cinnamon and tahini sauce on it, or maybe not.
One thing we can agree on? However you choose to cook it, wherever you choose to eat it, they are all delicious.
- 2 lb pork , beef or lamb tenderloin
- 1 yellow onion (or red onion), finely chopped
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 3 cloves garlic , chopped
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 teaspoons wine vinegar
- 2 tomatoes , diced
- 3 scallions , cut into strips
- A few pita breads
- Tzatziki sauce
- Using a sharp knife, remove all the white membrane that covers the top of the pork, beef or lamb tenderloin. This step is very important, otherwise the meat would remain hard.
- Cut the meat into thin slices of equal size.
- Place the meat in a salad bowl and add the yellow or red onion.
- Add rosemary, oregano, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper.
- Marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours and at room temperature (before cooking) for 2 hours.
- Drain the meat completely.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the meat (without the marinade),
- Cook fairly quickly over medium-high heat, stirring regularly (cooking should be fast).
- To serve
- In your pita, add the meat, tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, and scallions.
- Serve with hot French fries.