Queen of Donairs

A couple of weeks ago, someone posted to the Toronto LiveJournal community, asking about where to get Nova Scotia style donairs. After we collectively determined that there is no place in Toronto to get this much-loved street food, I fessed up and admitted that I have a copy of the original recipe created and marketed by the chain King of Donairs. And despite encouragement to start my own donair stand here in Toronto, I’d still rather just make the things at home.

Now while the donair resembles the traditional Greek gyro in many ways, it’s not a gyro. Not even close. The meat is different, and more importantly, the sauce is different. How Halifax became the place where the gyro or doner kebab was bastardized and grew in popularity, I’ll never know, but donair joints are on every block in downtown Halifax. Most of the shops that sell donairs also sell pizza, most famously on the corner of Blowers and Grafton Streets, aka “Pizza Corner”, where three of the four corners (the fourth is a church) have some variation of a pizza/donair joint. There’s even a donair pizza for those who can’t decide.

It should be pointed out that Halifax has three different institutes of higher learning in its rather miniscule downtown area, which means a lot of students (note to anyone considering a trip to Nova Scotia, do NOT go to Halifax during the first few weeks of September), which means a lot of bars. At one point in the 80s, Halifax had more bars per capita than any other city in North America. What this means is that there are a lot of drunk people looking for something to eat after last call.

And nothing is more satisfying than a donair.

It’s hot, it’s greasy, it’s raunchy, it’s sweet and it’s sticky. Some of my best memories of the summer of 1987 involve a walk through Victoria Park at 2am with my roommate Sharon, as we stumbled along, pissed off our asses, donair sauce running down our wrists and a chunk of hash in our pockets to smoke when we got home. Each time, it was the best donair ever.

When we moved to Toronto later that year, we discovered a donair shop in the food court at the Eaton Centre (back when the food court was near the centre fountain), but it disappeared after a bout of renovations.

Since then, I’ve been making my own. My Mom used to work with the wife of the donair king and somehow scored the recipe. We made them all the time when I was a kid, and a phone call home got me a copy of the recipe so I could have donairs in Toronto. Going veg threw a bit of a wrench into my donair eating for a few years, but then one day I just craved the things so badly that I mashed some TVP together with the other ingredients and an egg and came up with something workable.

Note that the photo above is definitely a snooty version of what you’d get at any of the joints on pizza corner in Halifax. The donair is traditionally made on white pita bread, not wholewheat, and the inclusion of the fancy heirloom cherry tomatoes would likely get me run out of town. Resist the temptation to add such travesties as cheese, lettuce, hot sauce or pickles. The beauty of the donair is its simplicity – meat, tomatoes, raw onions, sauce and bread. Nothing else.

Some other tips before I set you loose on the recipes – no fair cooking the onions. You can omit them if you must, but part of the donair experience is that heartburn you get afterwards, which, incidentally is not as bad if your stomach is already full of alcohol. And – if the sauce does not run down your hand as far as your elbow as you try to eat the thing, you don’t have enough sauce. These are traditonally served wrapped if you’re getting them from a donair joint, but on a well-made donair, you should still be thoroughly covered in sauce by the time you’re done regardless of the wrapper.

Meat Version

2.5 lb ground beef
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp ground chili pepper
1 tsp oregano
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp salt
3-5 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup finely ground cracker crumbs

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Form a ball out of the meat mixture and place on a cookie rack on top of a deep baking pan – basically you want to simulate the rotisserie effect, and want the fat to drain off the meat. Bake for 2 hours in a 300′F oven.

Soy Version

2x 1 lb packages of prepared TVP such as Yves Ground Round
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp ground chili pepper
1 tsp oregano
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp salt
3-5 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup finely ground cracker crumbs
1 egg, well-beaten

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Place in a greased loaf pan and bake at 350′F for 1 hour. You can also cook these in muffin tins to get the perfect amount for a single serving.


1/2 cup VERY COLD evaporated milk
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tsp white vinegar
1/2 tsp garlic powder

With a mixer, beat cold milk until light and fluffy and soft peaks form. Add sugar, garlic powder and vinegar. Beat lightly until well-blended. Do not over beat.

Other stuff you need:
warmed pita bread – 1 per donair
chopped tomatoes – approx 2 Tbsp per donair
chopped raw onions – approx 1 Tbsp per donair

Slice meat thinly while still hot. Soy version will not slice, simply measure about a third to half a cup per donair.

Heat pita bread in a skillet or a microwave if you’re lazy.

Put a large dollop of sauce onto the pita. Add meat slices or crumbled TVP, then garnish with chopped tomatoes and onions, add more sauce. Roll up as much as possible without filling falling out. Grab plenty of napkins and enjoy.

– Both the meat (and soy version) and the sauce freeze well. Wrap the meat into single servings, and simply defrost as necessary.
– The sauce does not get hard in the freezer, and can be stored there until it’s time to assemble the sandwich.
– The sauce recipe is easily doubled if you are not inclined to waste half a can of evaporated milk.
– The original recipe was loaded with MSG, which I’ve omitted. Instead, I’ve doubled the quantity of spices – so if you’re not big on spicy, cut the spices in the meat by half.