A History of the Famous Greek Street Food
Gyros are a popular Greek street food dish, known for their succulent meat cooked on a vertical spit. Similar to the Turkish döner kebab and Middle Eastern shawarma, gyros are sliced thinly and typically served in a pita bread with sauces like tzatziki and fresh vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers.
The word gyro is derived from the Greek word gheereezo, meaning "to turn," which refers to the rotating vertical spit on which the meat is cooked. There are several beliefs about the origin of gyros. Some people think it dates back to the time of Alexander the Great, when soldiers skewered meat on their swords and cooked it over a fire. Others believe it was introduced to Greece in 1922 by refugees from Constantinople and Smyrna who settled in the country and opened small shops selling gyros.
It is said that the best gyro masters were Armenian, and as refugees settled in their new home, they became merchants and opened shops selling gyros. Grilling a vertical spit of stacked meat slices and cutting it off as it cooks was developed in Bursa in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, and was called döner kebap. Following World War II, döner kebap made with lamb was present in Athens, introduced by immigrants from Anatolia and the Middle East. A distinct Greek variation developed, often made with pork and served with tzatziki sauce, which later became known as gyros.
After World War II, gyros started to spread west following the immigration patterns of the Greeks themselves. Shops began popping up across Europe, the United States, and Australia. Gyros became one of the first global fast foods, although most shops were mom-and-pop run. By 1970, gyros wrapped sandwiches were already a popular fast food in Athens, Chicago, and New York City. Although vertical rotisseries were starting to be mass-produced in the US by Gyros Inc. of Chicago, the stacks of meat were still handmade. According to Margaret Garlic, she was the first to come up with the idea to mass-produce gyros meat cones after watching a demonstration by a Greek restaurant owner carving gyros on the television show "What's My Line?"
Gyros is a beloved street food wherever there are Greeks. It is one of the most popular foods among tourists and has progressed beyond the mom-and-pop realm into the world of American chains (some owned by Greeks). Gyros remain a steadfast symbol of Greek casual dining and street fare.
Greek Gyros Recipe
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken or pork
- 4-6 pita breads
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup chopped lettuce
- 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
- 1/2 cup chopped cucumbers
- Tzatziki sauce
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- Lemon juice
- Cut the meat into thin slices and place in a large bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix together garlic, oregano, thyme, paprika, salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice. Pour the mixture over the meat, making sure to coat all pieces well. Let the meat marinate for at least 1 hour or overnight in the refrigerator.
- Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill the meat until cooked through, about 6-8 minutes per side.
- Warm the pita breads in the oven or on a grill pan.
- Assemble the gyros by placing the warm pita bread on a plate, and top it with a generous amount of meat, sliced onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Drizzle with tzatziki sauce.
- Roll up the pita bread to enclose the filling, and enjoy your delicious Greek gyros!