Gyro vs. Shawarma: What’s the Difference?

The gyro and the shawarma are two staples of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine that have gone mainstream in the United States. 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. However, we at Plated like to uncover every technique and mystery food has to offer, so we’re about to reveal what’s actually wrapped up in that pita.

Why Do People Confuse Them?

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. Invented in Turkey in the 18th or 19th century, doner kebab means “rotating grilled meat.” When it was introduced to Greece, the locals named it “gyros,” the Greek word for “turn.” Likewise, when it spread through the Middle East, it was called “shawarma,” an Arabic word for “turning.” Of course, if you’ve ever seen the meat gloriously spinning on a rotisserie, you understand why these names stuck.

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So What’s In a Gyro?

(Image: Flickr)

The meat for a gyro is a blend, usually some combination of lamb and beef, formed into a loaf before roasted on a spit.

(Image: Pius Lee)

The meat is sliced off and served on a thin Greek pita before getting topped with tomatoes, onion, and tzatziki—a cold sauce made of strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, and other ingredients depending on the recipe. Plus, a little hot sauce might be added to give this warm, flavorful sandwich an extra kick.

And What’s In a Shawarma?

(Image: Flickr)

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.

The Difference Is…

Though each chef you meet might have slightly varying definitions for gyro and shawarma, here’s the main takeaway: 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? They’re both delicious. That’s why we’re shipping our fresh Beef Gyritos on Mini Pitas with Tzatziki next week. Tiny yet packed with flavor, these little gyros are topped with peppers and smothered in a homemade tzatziki sauce. If all this reading about gyros and shawarma has stirred up your cravings, then these mini versions will provide the perfect relief.

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