Gyros, Athens, Greece

Pass the Tzatziki

Gyro mania! You probably know what a Gyro is—yes, it’s pronounced yee-ro, with a nice rolled r—but what does it mean? Where does it come from? And how much does a real Greek gyro resemble the sandwich you might get from a street cart in New York or a hole-in-the-wall in Chicago? Today is the day you finally learn!

First, you have to ask, what’s in a name? Like its similar cousin the shawarma and many other elements of Greek cuisine, the dish is actually Middle-Eastern. Originally, it was called a döner kebab, which is for “turn roast (meat).” This is where the Greek comes in. The word gyro doesn’t have anything to do with food or meat—like döner in Turkish, it just means turn, in reference to the big spit roast that from which the chef would just carve off some slices of whatever meat they had handy and throw it into a dish or sandwich. The kebab part of the equation seems to have gotten lost in translation, so, voila: gyros were born!

Believe it or not, the history of the gyro in Greece really isn’t all that much older than its story in the United States. It came to Greece with the waves of immigrants that had began to come from the Middle East, and the Greeks soon enough to put their own twists on it, which is how some of the spices and tzatziki got involved. It was so wildly popular that it hardly took more than a decade before Greek immigrants themselves added them to their menus when they brought their cuisine to places like New York and Chicago. Just more proof of all the great things that come with welcoming peoples of other cultures!

It didn’t take long after that for the gyro to become a nationwide phenomenon. As this excellent piece from the New York Times discovered, one Milwaukeean and several enterprising Chicagoans all figured out how around the same time how to mass-produce the big ol’ rotisseries of meat (the versions you find in the United States are lamb and beef, while the version you’ll find in Greece is traditionally pork) that you know see in food carts and restaurants across the country. The rest is just another delicious chapter of history, as they say. Athens and all of Greece are filled with exquisite food and wonderful restaurants, but sometimes you just need something greasy and savory right off the street—if you’re ever visiting, see how they compare and report back!

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