January 31, 2015 Comments (4) Destinations, Food & Thoughts, Turkey

Is that Doner a Gyro?

Gyro pork meat

Is that Doner a Gyro?

When traveling to a new destination, my biggest fear is making a complete ass of myself.  Typically, when planning for a trip, part of my prep ritual is to research the history, culture and etiquette of the destination.  This not only enriches my travels and overall immersion, but also helps me to avoid being that tourist. I know you’ve all seen them: loud, obnoxious and generally insensitive to anything different. But before you think that I’m taking the high-road on this, I must confess, I’ve been guilty of a few personal transgressions too.

I like to think that I’m relatively successful blending in and “doing as the locals do”, but every now and then, my horrible habits bubble to the surface…

Case in point, during my last trip to Turkey I stuck the proverbial “foot in my mouth”. Normally I would include my wife in my anecdotes, but for this particular story she has disavowed any involvement and has forbidden me to use the word “we”.  But, then again, she hasn’t subscribed to the blog so she’ll be none the wiser. :)

After a long overnight flight to Istanbul, our first critical mission was to get some food. Considering it was early morning and options were a bit limited, we decided to get the lay of the land around the Sultanahmet district and if lucky, scrounge up some local chow. As we walked through the neighborhood we spotted a man skewering slabs of raw, marinated meat on a vertical spit. Pounds and pounds layered upon each other in preparation for the hungry throngs that would inevitably arrive. Being from the U.S., I immediately recognized it for what it was and so, armed with my knowledge learned from Wikipedia, I strolled confidently up to the counter and asked…are those Gyros you’re preparing?

Doner Gyro spit

Doner Kebab Preparation

It was a long silence (in reality, it was probably only a few seconds). The man finally gave me a wry smile, accompanied with a sidelong glance, as he pointed to a sign, and said, “no…it’s a Doner”

It certainly wasn’t the end of the world, but embarrassment is merciless (and my wife’s memory is unforgiving). Thankfully the gentleman understood my honest mistake, that or I’m convincing myself it wasn’t the first time he’s been asked that question. Whichever it was, he was very polite in addressing my faux pas and didn’t draw attention to my blunder.

Needless to say, I am now hell-bent on determining what made the two dishes different besides geography. More importantly though, I want to save you guys the same embarrassment. :)

The Gyro and Doner Difference

Both the Doner and Gyro are staples in their respective countries and can be found virtually everywhere. Turkey has the Doner, or Doner Kebab, whereas Greece has the Gyro. At first glance their appearances seem very similar in presentation and preparation.   The columns of meat can usually be seen marinating slowly on a rotating spit with thin slices being carved off periodically. Both dishes are generally served with Pita bread, and complemented with different sauces and salads.   Apparently, they were so similar that Greece even used the word Doner at one point, only to eventually replace it with the term Gyro. Confused? So was I! Believe it or not though, they are unique with their own distinct taste.

Doner Kebab

Doner Kebab on vertical spits


The Doner Kebab, is a Turkish dish usually made from either lamb, veal, or chicken and is generally served with flatbread, onions, tomatoes, hot sauce, and pickles. As fast food the meat, sauces and garnish are all tightly wrapped in a pita making it easier to walk and eat without skipping a beat. On the plate version though, it can be served open face with additional goodies like hot tomato sauce and sheep butter – think Iskender kebab

Doner Kebab

Iskendar Kebab


The Greek Gyro on the other hand, is typically made with fatty moist pork, tomatoes,  and onions wrapped tightly by an oily grilled Pita bread. Like the Doner, chicken and veal are occasionally found, but not as prevalent as pork. The most notable difference from the Doner is the inclusion of fried potatoes and tzatziki sauce. The Greek Gyro seems slightly less healthy because of the added fat and frying, but it’s unbelievably flavorful – who doesn’t love potatoes. Reminds me of a California burrito (more on that in another post :))


Greek Gyro


Think it’s starting to make sense? Wrong again! To make it all the more confusing, variations exist worldwide with places like the U.S. and Canada using the terms interchangeably and with much flexibility. Even the Doner Kebab has multiple variations within Turkey where it’s sometimes served with rice or with cheese.  To set themselves apart,  you’ll even find restaurants calling Doners by its Arabic name “Shawarma”.

Still, embarrassment and confusion aside, we were first in line a few hours later. You don’t need to know what it’s called to enjoy it. I know we didn’t.


What were your most embarrassing moments on the road?

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I'm an aspiring scuba diver, novice spelunker and avid adventurer.I have a penchant for always getting lost with an established track record for choosing the worst places to eat. With a healthy aversion to staying in one place for too long, I am the ceaseless wanderer and explorer. I recently traded in the suit for a backpack, and am now pursuing to live a life of sustained travel. I travel to learn, I travel to live and I travel in search of adventure.
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4 Responses to Is that Doner a Gyro?

  1. Natalie says:

    I was confused at first about what a gyro was but once you explained, I realised the intensity of your social faux pas! By the way, I am typing with one hand because eating a donor wrap now. How canny to come across your post while doing so.
    Natalie recently posted…5 Historical Places in Turkey That Everyone Should VisitMy Profile

    • Carey says:

      Haha, the power of suggestion is strong! I’m sure that I’ve merely scratched the surface on all the variations and differences. But I certainly hope I’ve saved others from the same embarrassment.

  2. Linda Bibb says:

    Hey, don’t feel too badly; I didn’t realize that there is a difference between gyros and doners either.

    I also hadn’t realized there is a difference in the meat. I can understand why there are variations on toppings and such but I guess I just assumed the Greek and Turkish versions were created from the same animal(s) since they were both part of the Ottoman Empire, whose official religion was Islam, and Muslims don’t eat pork. I had discounted the Greek Orthodox influence. Oops.

    In any case, I am so glad I didn’t eat gyros in Greece. Even though I’m not a Muslim or a Jew, the idea of eating any type of pork repulses me. Ew. Now I know.

    Thank you for your public service announcement. :)
    Linda Bibb recently posted…7 Things to See at the VaticanMy Profile

    • Carey says:

      Hi Linda,
      I’m glad I could help :) In retrospect it certainly does make sense, I wish I gave it more thought at time. Must have been travel brain!

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