People figured out fire approximately one million years ago. Ever since, there has been a primal allure to roasting meat on a stick over a bed of crackling flames. From a medieval suckling pig to the rotisserie chicken you grabbed at the grocery store last week, the popularity of spit-roasted meat is ever-growing.

Food trucks and street food are all the rage right now, and they offer an astounding variety of different international meat-on-a-stick bites. Despite the excess of fast-casual cuisine available to us daily, there's nothing as tried and true as a well-made gyro or shawarma. Though both are tasty and seem quite similar, there is a difference between gyro vs. shawarma.  

Gyro and shawarma are both meat dishes that are cooked at a very high temperature on a rotating spit, and sliced into savory thin strips of meat. Both foods are derived from the Turkish Döner Kebab and stuffed inside of flatbread along with hummus, tahini, and often French fries. They can also be served bread-free and piled high on a plate alongside tabbouleh, tomato, and yogurt-topped cucumber slices.

It’s important to keep in mind that gyro and shawarma are NOT the same thing, and that any street-food savant will ream you for assuming otherwise. Now that I have you hungry, attentive, and perhaps a little confused, let’s discuss the crucial differences between the Greek gyro vs. the Arabic shawarma dish. 

What Is Gyro?

Pronounced YEE-roh and translating as "turning" in Greek, the gyro is a vertically spit-roasted stacked meat dish, cooked in front of an upright rotisserie. Traditional Greek gyro is made from pork, while the American version of the dish typically consists of lamb, beef, or a scrumptious assortment of the two. Both versions are then stuffed between two fluffy blankets of pita bread and topped with tomato, onion, and a yogurt sauce called tzatziki. You know you're at a true gyro establishment if it comes piled high with crispy golden French fries and absolutely no silverware to help you make your way through the messy sandwich.

Greek historians attribute the origin of the gyro to soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great, who skewered meat with their swords and cooked it over an open flame. It is believed that the gyro was introduced to the United States by a growing Greek population in 1970s New York City. One could speculate that our current love for food trucks and reasonably-priced, exotic fast-casual food all started with the Americanized gyro sandwich.

What Is Shawarma?

Despite its Turkish roots, shawarma is a Middle Eastern creation that sprung up somewhere in the Levant. The main difference between shawarma and gyro is the meat. Unlike gyros, the packed-down shawarma meat can be anything from chicken to lamb to veal to goat.

Another difference between shawarma and gyro is the preparation; shawarma is more about the flavor of the meat than the plethora of toppings on it. Shawarma is marinated all day in seasonings and spices like garlic, turmeric, dried lime, cinnamon, and cardamom, giving it a complex flavor both tangy and warm. Like the gyro, shawarma is served with toppings like tahini, tabbouleh, and hummus. Unlike the gyro, shawarma never has tzatziki sauce, which would detract from the flavor of the methodically marinated meat.

If you aren’t yet familiar with shawarma, think of it as tacos al pastor’s older and wiser Arabic brother. Like many popular spit-roasted meat dishes, shawarma is believed to have originated from the 19th century Ottoman Bursa, or current day Turkey. The  name “shawarma” comes from the Turkish word “çevirme,” which means “turning.” Shawarma is thought to have gained popularity in the US around the same time as gyros.

lettuce, vegetable, beef, sandwich, gyro, bread, meat
Net Supatravanij

Though every chef has their own spin of the spit on how to make shawarma vs gyro, we can all agree on the fact that they are both freakin’ delicious. Pita is a seductively fluffy blanket of bread, and the hummus is the glue that holds everything together. Either one will kick your sad lunchmeat sandwich to the curb.

Also, it's important to think fondly of the Ottoman Empire and their affinity for meat roasted on stick, for without them we would have never enjoyed gyro, shawarma, or many of our other food truck favorites.