Halifax’s donair: The tastiest treat you have probably never heard of

Special to The Globe and Mail

Neil Dominey, owner and chef at The Fuzz Box, hails from Berwick, Nova Scotia. He is seen preparing a donair at his restaurant on June 4, 2012. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE)

There is a ritual that happens every weekend in downtown Halifax. It starts around 2 in the morning, when bars start to close and throngs of people congregate at the downtown intersection of Blowers and Grafton Streets, better known as Pizza Corner. They seek slices of pizza, subs and, above all else, donairs.

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The donair is to Halifax what the banh mi is to Saigon, the jambon-beurre to Paris. It is a quintessential Haligonian gastronomic experience, as East Coast as Jiggs dinner. Best eaten late at night and on the street, it is a sweet and savoury, tasty and messy snack for meat lovers. For a long time, it was something you rarely found outside of the East Coast, save for poor imitations and pretenders.

To the uninitiated, the donair is intimidating. First, there is donair meat, heavily spiced ground beef that’s shaped into a large loaf and roasted on a spit, then shaved and seared on a flat top range. The meat is placed on a thin, Lebanese-style pita and topped with tomatoes and raw onions. The donair sauce is an addictively sweet blend of evaporated milk, vinegar, garlic powder and sugar. The sandwich is wrapped in tinfoil and eaten out of hand. Kind of. As the pita has a tendency to sop up the juices and sauces, making the bread fall apart, donairs are best eaten over a cardboard plate and as far away from your body as possible.

The history of the donair is a little murky. Its predecessor, the doner kebab, was made in the 1950s by the owner of a Turkish kebab house in Berlin. The Greek adaptation, the gyro, soon followed, and it was this version that Peter and John Kamoulakos tried to introduce to Bluenosers during the late 1960s at their small restaruant in Bedford, N.S. The brothers soon found, however, that Nova Scotians weren’t so fond of lamb served with a yogurt-based sauce. They ditched the lamb for beef and crafted the distinctive sweet sauce, creating something quite removed from shawarma and kebab.

Today, there’s a restaurant chain named after donairs and almost every pizza place sells them. Chinese takeout joints serve donair egg rolls. Ontario-based chain Pizza Pizza had a donair recipe created for them when they branched out to Atlantic Canada.

Outside of the Maritimes, nostalgic diners have to be resourceful to get their fix. Food-based message boards are filled with questions about where to find “authentic” donairs. And some have taken matters into their own hands, fine-tuning recipes until they get the right mix. For instance, Glen Petitpas, a Hawaii-based Haligonian astronomer and computer engineer, gained a global following for posting detailed recipes on his website, using insider knowledge from a friend at a well-known Halifax donair joint.

The search for donairs outside of the Maritimes is getting easier. In Milton and Burlington, Ont., there’s a small chain called Halifax Donair and Pizza. In Calgary, Jimmy’s A&A offers a version. And in Toronto you can find it on the Danforth in a little place called The Fuzz Box. Owner and chef Neil Dominey, who hails from Berwick, N.S., was tired of his cravings going unfulfilled. “I tried 10 different donair recipes,” he says. “Some didn’t have enough paprika or oregano, but I combined a few recipes to get what I wanted.” His dedication to the creation of the perfect donair does not mean that he is a purist. He serves his donairs with Greek, rather than Lebanese pitas. “Customers love it,” he says. “They prefer it, as the thing holds together, but I do keep the Lebanese on hand, just in case someone asks.”

On the other side of town, Hopgood’s Foodliner is also serving them, albeit a slightly upscale version, adding a bit of pork in the mixture and folding them like tacos. Chef Geoff Hopgood, a Bluenoser himself, sells about 400 of donairs a week. “They’re tasty, grimy, fun and nostalgic for me,” he says. “They can be the perfect snack food with a can of Labatt 50.”

Many argue, however, that they are best experienced back East, preferably late at night, with a hankering for something greasy, sweet and meaty. Oh, and as for eating them? There is an unspoken code among donair diners. No one ever looks good eating them, so no one judges you, even if you do have sauce drizzling down your chin. Just give’er.