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Shawarma vs Gyro: How do they Compare?

Lisa Price
Last Updated on
by Lisa Price

They’re both delicious and handy foods to eat when you’re on the move, but there is a difference between shawarma and gyro.

They also share some significant similarities, but they each have a separate origin story and uniquely rich tradition regarding their flavors and toppings.

Difference between Shawarma and Gyro

Shawarma v Gyro
Shawarma v Gyro

The main difference between shawarma and gyro is their separate heritage and tradition. The gyro has Greek origins, whereas shawarma comes from the Middle East.

Sauce: Shawarma typically features tahini, while gyros have tzatziki

Flavor: Gyros traditionally have a fresh Mediterranean mix of herbs and spices, while shawarma is more savory with dried spices

Toppings: Shawarma is topped with pickled fruits and vegetables, while gyro usually has lettuce, tomato, and red onion

Shawarma vs Gyro Comparison Table

 ShawarmaGyro
MeatsLamb, chicken, turkeyLamb, beef, chicken, pork
BreadPitaPita
ToppingsPickled fruits and vegetables like cabbage, carrots, and onionsRed onion, tomatoes, lettuce, fresh veggies
SpreadTahini, hummusTzatziki, hummus
HerbsGarlic, cardamom, cloves, curry, turmeric, and cinnamonThyme, garlic, oregano, rosemary
OriginMiddle EastGreece
NameDerived from “çevirme,” Turkish for “turning”Gyro is Greek for “to turn”
CookingVertical RotisserieVertical Rotisserie

Can You Substitute Shawarma for Gyro?

Though similar in some important ways, they’re no substitute for one another. They’re each too unique.

Confusing shawarma and gyro is fairly easy because they’re not that different in terms of their basic meat preparation. They often contain similar meats cooked the same way, and the ingredients are typically packed into a rolled slice of pita bread and served with a flavorful, crunchy blend of spreads and toppings.

What Is Shawarma?

Shawarma
Shawarma

Shawarma is a type of street food, similar to a regular sandwich. But instead of stacking a pile of meat and toppings between two separate slices of bread, they come inside a pocket of pita bread surrounding the meat and toppings.

Shawarma gets its name from the vertical rotisserie used to cook the marinated lamb, chicken, or turkey at the pita’s center. This cooking technique has origins in Turkey, where they pioneered the idea of stacking hunks of meat on a spit and slow-roasting them as it rotates.

The flavor profile is usually quite savory and distinctively Middle Eastern. So you should expect plenty of spice and a touch of sweetness in shawarma. Typical flavor notes include cardamom, curry, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, and of course, garlic.

Traditionally-prepared shawarma will also have a spread of hummus and tahini. Hummus is made from chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil. Tahini comes from dried, ground sesame seeds and their oil.

After adding a helping of meat, shawarma will include some crunchy toppings to complete the medley of seasonings.

Typically, to cut through the intensely savory flavors of the meat, tahini, and hummus, shawarma vendors add generous portions of pickled vegetables, similar to other cuisines where briny flavors act as a counterpoint to rich and fatty meats and seafood.

Typical vegetable toppings include cucumbers, carrots, red onions, and cabbage. The optional addition of more vegetables brings even more crunch. Think of these as a palette cleanser and a refresher, just like when you have some pickled ginger on your plate to go with your sushi or sashimi.

Shawarma can take many final forms, depending on who makes it for you. Each maker puts their personal, unique twist on this Middle Eastern food staple. They’re all variations on the same theme of rich meats, slow-roasted on a rotisserie, then piled high and wrapped in a slice of pita bread.

Served most often as street food, shawarma is something you’ll find on food carts, as well as in specialty locations, diners, and Middle Eastern restaurants worldwide. 

How to Use Shawarma

Shawarma is perfect anytime you’re in the mood for Middle Eastern food that’s easily eaten, even on the go. Some places even offer vegetarian shawarma if meat isn’t your thing.

Shawarma lends itself to convenience, but it’s kind of hard to make at home, as most people don’t have a vertical rotisserie on which to cook the meat.

What Is Gyro?

Gyro
Gyro

Gyro (pronounced ‘yee-row’) comes from Greek culture. It can be a little confusing because gyro refers both to the street food sandwich and, in some cases, a specific preparation of meat. Let’s focus on the gyro sandwich first.

The gyro is also quite similar to shawarma but unique in its own right. So you’re forgiven if you get confused between the two. Just keep in mind that despite their similarities, they are quite distinct in terms of flavor and ingredients. The gyro has an interesting history, some of which it shares with shawarma. 

Gyro meat is roasted on a vertical rotisserie, just like the meat used in shawarma. That’s because both gyro and shawarma can trace their inspiration back to the same original cooking technique called doner kebap.

Pioneered in Turkey during the 19th century’s Ottoman Empire, doner kebap is made by stacking meat, usually lamb, on a vertical spit, roasting it as it spins, and cutting off slices for serving.

Immigrants who moved to Greece from Turkey after World War II brought the technique with them and likely inspired the Greek version, which often used pork instead of lamb.

Gyro Sandwich
Gyro Sandwich

The technique remained the same, but servings of the meat were accompanied with Greek flavors and aromatics instead of those from the Middle East, as well as tzatziki instead of tahini.

Over time, stacked cones of meat became a common way to cook other kinds of meat as well. Since the meat could be easily roasted and a few crispy slices carved to order while leaving the rest of the cone intact, the gyro was a favorite for street vendors and quick-service restaurants. The gyro sandwich was born!

The meat is traditionally heaped into a pita pocket or rolled up on thin pita bread, and hummus is usually used as one of the spreads. That’s where the similarities between shawarma and gyro end.

Gyro meat is usually lamb, beef, chicken, or pork, while shawarma is typically limited to turkey, lamb, or chicken.

Whatever the meat, it starts in a fragrant marinade of greek olive oil, and common Mediterranean herbs and spices, like thyme, garlic, oregano, and rosemary. Sometimes, ground beef is incorporated into a gyro to make it even meatier.

Hunks of the marinated meat are then stacked on a spit and slow-roasted on a rotating stand. When it’s time for serving, the cook carves off thin slices of meat from the outside of the rotisserie. The rest of the meat continues to turn on the spit, and the newly exposed layer sizzles in the heat of the rotisserie.

Changes in the distance between the heat source and the meat affect the cooking speed and the amount of char on the meat.

Some gyro shops spin the meat faster than others or cook the meat lower and slower. It doesn’t matter the pace of the cooking or turning because the juices continue to soak into the meat while excess fat drips off. The carving process is quick and easy. This technique is, again, very similar to shawarma making.

After slicing the meat from the spit and adding it to a pita slathered with hummus, a typical gyro gets some more Mediterranean love from the addition of tzatziki, a saucy topping made from yogurt mixed with cucumbers, salt, garlic, olive, and herbs like dill, parsley, thyme, and mint. 

Then, the typical gyro maker tops their creation with crunchy, shredded lettuce, onions, and tomato. Some gyro makers add other spices, like cumin, and other toppings like fried potatoes or sliced cucumbers.

Often rolled into a napkin or wrapper, the gyro is left with one end of the bread open and the stuffing of meat and veggies sticking out a bit. It has a distinctive look and aroma.

Plus, it’s handy to take on the go, making the gyro a very accessible street food. Often found in big international cities or those with a sizable Greek population, the gyro has become a food standard you can find in diners and restaurants in most of the US.

How to Use Gyro

Using a gyro is pretty easy, and if you buy one, all you have to do is eat it. You should consider a gyro when you’re looking for a savory, crunch meat sandwich when you’re on the move.

It can be a simple meal for lunch or dinner. Just like shawarma, it’s hard to make a gyro at home because most kitchens don’t have a vertical rotisserie.

So, if you’re in the mood for the flavors of gyro but you’re stuck at home without a rotisserie, consider an alternative form of a gyro.

Instead of roasting the meat on a spit, you can use ground meat and all the traditional spices to make a loaf of meat in a baking pan. It’s not quite the same as the traditional thin sliced gyro on pita, but it’s similar, and some people refer to it by the same name.

About Lisa Price
Lisa Price
Lisa is Food Champ's resident fitness enthusiast and nutrition expert. She holds a nutrition degree in her home state of Florida and works for a large health system to ensure sound nutrition and dietetics information is passed on to all members.
1 Comment
  1. You really should give a full review of the Turkish Döner as well.
    Similar to both the Greek Gyro and Middle Eastern Shawarma, the Turkish Döner is it’s own delight. It is also hugely popular in Germany.

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