A sandwich’s cultural odyssey

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Edmonton was the domination of the donair.

My beloved shawarma and gyros shops from the Toronto area were nowhere to be seen, instead replaced with an assortment of donair stores with a myriad of names: Best Donair, Queen Donair, Donair Station, et cetera.

It was a lot to wrap my mind around.

I’ve discussed the shawarma shortage in Fort Saskatchewan with our federal MP, as well as a local crown prosecutor. Both expressed hope that one day, the donair dynasty here would end.

By my count, there are at least six restaurants in the Fort that serve donairs, but not a single spot for shawarma — until now. And although I’ve developed an appreciation for donairs, I still have a soft spot for the savoury shawarmas of my childhood. So you can imagine how pleased I was to recently hear that a Lebanese restaurant specializing in shawarma has opened in the Fort.

One of the funny things about donairs is that although they’re Turkish in origin, most of the donair shop owners I’ve encountered here are Lebanese.  And the reason they serve donairs instead of their traditional shawarma is to cater to the Maritimers who came to Alberta to work and wanted a taste of home (the Canadian style of donair was invented in Halifax. More on that later).

The tale of the donair’s voyage from sandwich stands in Germany to every street corner in Edmonton is an interesting one.

According to Edmonton’s foremost donair scholar, Omar Mouallem (who also bizarrely shares my initials, cultural background and affinity for cats), the Canadian rendition of the donair was created by a Greek immigrant in Halifax in the 1970s.

Peter Gamoulakos modified the donër kebab sandwich, which had migrated from New York by way of Germany and Turkey, by making it spicier and adding a sweet sauce to cater to local palates (while botching the pronunciation to boot).

The donair sandwich is also related to the Greek gyros, which is probably what Gamoulakos was thinking of when he modified the donër kebab. I won’t blame you if all this has your head spinning like the skewer on which these various meats sit.

In a sense, the donair is more than just a patchwork of cultural connections – it’s a tribute to the immigrant dream, tracing its roots to no less than three continents.

The donair’s actual meat, much like its ancestry, is an amalgam; the traditional donër was a mix of lamb and beef. My understanding is the Canadian version is primarily composed of beef and a soy-based filler.

Shawarma, on the other hand (which roughly translates in Arabic to “to turn”) brought a different twist to its pita-clad cousin, introducing the sesame-based tahini sauce as the primary condiment, and using actual beef or chicken thigh instead of a ground-up concoction.

Amazingly, I mentioned to my colleague that a shawarma shop had opened in town, and she had no idea what a shawarma was. Hence why I am writing this column.

If you’re a fan of pita sandwiches, I invite you to go on a scavenger hunt for this new restaurant. I won’t tell you where it is, but here’s a clue: it previously housed two donair shops.

Stay tuned for a profile of the business in the near future.

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