Ever since people figured out fire millions of years ago, there’s been a primal allure to roasting meat over a bed of crackling flames. From a medieval suckling pig to store-bought rotisserie chicken, the popularity of spit-roasted meat is ever-growing. Gyros and shawarmas, street food faves, are no different — though there is a difference between the two.

Gyro and shawarma are both meat dishes that are cooked at a very high temperature on a rotating spit — a rod that holds meat in an oven or over an open flame, like a vertical rotisserie — and sliced into savory thin strips of meat. Both foods are derived from the Turkish Döner Kebab and stuffed inside of flatbread alongside hummus, tahini, and often French fries. They can also be served bread-free and piled high on a plate with 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 scold you for assuming otherwise. Even though they share Turkish roots, the shawarma comes from the Middle East, whereas the gyro is Greek. While both gyro and shawarma are made with lamb, shawarma can also be made with chicken or turkey and topped with tahini and pickles; whereas a gyro is traditionally made with lamb, beef, or sometimes chicken and pork. The other difference between gyro vs. shawarma is the toppings.

Now that I have you hungry, attentive, and perhaps a little confused, let’s discuss the history and preparation of 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. Sometimes, the dish 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’s 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, internationally-inspired fast-casual food all started with the Americanized gyro sandwich.

How to make gyros:

Typical American mass-produced gyros are made with finely ground beef mixed with lamb. For hand-made gyros, meat is cut into round, thin, flat slices, which are then stacked on a spit and seasoned with lemon, garlic, oregano for the traditional Greek flavors.

If you’re looking to try gyro, but don’t actually own a spit, Trader Joe’s sells slices of gyro meat that are almost as good as the real thing. Heat it up on either the stovetop or in the microwave, and stuff it inside a pita pocket piled high with cucumber, tomato, hummus, and homemade tzatziki sauce for a beef gyro that’s almost as good as one from a food truck.

What is shawarma?

Shawarma is a Middle Eastern dish that can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, and remains a staple in modern day Turkey. The name “shawarma” comes from the Turkish word “çevirme,” which means “turning.” Shawarma is thought to have gained popularity in the U.S. around the same time as gyros.

The main difference between shawarma and gyro is the meat. Unlike gyros, which typically contain beef in addition to lamb, the packed-down shawarma meat can include chicken, lamb, turkey, veal, or 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 carefully marinated all day in seasonings and spices like garlic, turmeric, dried lime, cinnamon, and cardamom, giving it a complex flavor that’s 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.

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How to make shawarma:

Like gyro, Shawarma consists of meat cut into thin slices and roasted on a slowly-turning vertical rotisserie or spit. Shawarma specifically, though, is stacked in a cone-like shape, and slowly cooked on the doner machine by slicing off the doner with a knife.

While it’s difficult to marinate meat on a spit for days on end in a home kitchen, the flavor profiles of chicken shawarma are easily mimicked. Trader Joe’s sells Shawarma Chicken Thighs that have been marinated in a Middle Eastern spice blend, and if you’re feeling adventurous, The Mediterranean Dish has an easy chicken shawarma recipe that comes together in just 40 minutes.