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Donair - the Official Food of Halifax

Donair, a regional specialty of Nova Scotia — by Richard Frisbie
Donair, a regional specialty of Nova Scotia — by Richard Frisbie

Many countries are associated with certain foods. When you think of Peru, you think of ceviche; Italy - pasta; Ireland - potatoes; such is a nation’s identity often aligned with its culinary heritage.

The same can be said for islands. The island of Manhattan has a whole raft of foods that conjure New York City when you hear them. Pizza, cheesecakes and bagels immediately come to mind. But usually islands are known for their seafood. An exception would be Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, who’s defining food, if it could be said to have one, is roast piglet.

Another exception, apparently, is in Nova Scotia, in the Canadian Maritimes. While much of their public relations focus on their rich and varied seafood - think oysters, mussels, clams and lobsters - the capital of Halifax has taken a whole different culinary direction. Last October this center of Atlantic Canada seafaring tradition named Donair the Official Food of Halifax.

What is a Donair?

One could be forgiven if at a loss to know exactly what donair is. It is similar to the poutine of Quebec only in that it is different everywhere it is served and an unbelievable source of intense regional pride. Donair is the unlikely marriage of pita, spicy ground meat, onions and tomatoes smothered in a sweet sauce - kind of a sweet and savory taco wannabe.

Sometimes the meat is fried and crumbled on the pita, sometimes baked in a loaf and sliced to serve on the pita, and sometimes the slices are fried first for a crisp addition to the mix. The latter is the traditional recipe, but all manner of license has been taken with the ingredients and preparations - as with poutine - so that every summer city fathers organize a “Donair Crawl” where aficionados can taste and vote on the best of the many incarnations of Halifax’s Official Food.

A Typical Donair Recipe

It seems that there are as many versions of donair as there are restaurants in Halifax, where the snack was invented more than 40 years ago. Here is one recipe for the traditional donair loaf with directions on how to properly assemble a donair gleaned from the Drunken Sailor website.

  1. Mix 2-3 tablespoons of Drunken Sailor Donair Spice* with 1 lb ground beef.
  2. Shape into a loaf and bake on a wire rack for approximately 30 minutes at 375 degrees until cooked through.
  3. Cool, slice thin and fry slices for 3-4 minutes until crisp.
  4. Serve on a pita round topped with fresh diced tomatoes and onions and a dollop of East Coast Donair Sauce.*
  5. Delving deeper into the Drunken Sailor website reveals this recipe for making Donair Sauce:
  6. Mix one can sweetened condensed milk and 1/3 cup white vinegar in a bowl, adding the vinegar slowly, stirring until it is mixed completely. Then stir in 2 tablespoons of garlic powder. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.

There is no mention of the ingredients in the Drunken Sailor Donair Spice mix which they sell in 6 tablespoon envelopes – enough for 2-3 lbs of donair meat.

Is a Donair Just a Doner Kebab?

Reading the Seasoned Advice website raises the possibility that Halifax’s donair is a local riff on Döner Kebabs. Internationally, Döner Kebabs are made using mid-Eastern spices (think a combination of some or all of these spices: onion, garlic, cumin, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, mint, coriander, vinegar, lemon juice and sumac.) Or, some combination of those spices is used to make prepackaged logs or cones of cooked meats that are available commercially to kebab makers. That possibility is reinforced by the use of pita, traditionally a mid-eastern bread, in the making of Halifax’s donairs.

But whatever their origin, Halifax owns donairs now, and you can taste them in all their diversity on your next visit to the historic city that is the principal port and largest city in the Canadian Maritimes.

* denotes proprietary ingredients and recipes available from the Drunken Sailor website.

This article was originally published on @richardfrisbie