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The Donair Comes Home

My very own home-made donair. – Michael Hawkins photo.

And so, the research continues.

It’s one of the Maritime’s most important questions, relatively. That of the donair. It seems it had a hey day and now finds itself somewhere post-hey day in the grand scheme of things.

After a recent experiment to try and re-try a number of donairs around Saint John and even one in P.E.I., I’ve come to the realization that we’ve lost something.  The core of what makes a donair great, greater than the sum of its parts, has largely been lost in one aspect or another.  In some cases we’re not putting enough effort in, and in other cases, we’re putting effort into the wrong places.

A forum member over at Giraffecycle.com started a thread on donairs in Saint John after he and some co-workers did an informal poll on the area’s best donairs.  It’s a good read so check it out here. You’ll see me there as “Hawk”.

Here are my thoughts on what a donair should be.  First the meat.  Donair meat should be a tender-firm, spicy, herbal beef roasted on a spit or cone so that it can be shaved as the surface carmelizes. In a perfect world, the meat should be shaved and coarsely chopped to order for the best moisture and texture. The toppings should be sliced onion, diced tomato and a tangy donair sauce, nothing else.  It should be served on a pita that has been dipped in water and briefly seared on a griddle to give a little colour and texture to the outside of the pita while leaving the inside moist and slightly chewy.

At Halifax Donair & Pizza in Milton, Ontario and at Tony’s and likely a few other old-school places in Halifax, that’s pretty much exactly what you get.  But as you move away from the heart of donair country, things tend to go pear-shaped. I’m not sure what that means but it can’t be good.  The problem of course is that the top sellers at virtually every place around the Saint John area that carries a donair is not the donair, but rather pizzas, subs, burgers, fries, etc. The donair is largely an after-thought and sadly, that becomes evident in the first few bites in most cases.

In far too many donair shops now, corners are being cut on the meat and it’s really hurting the donair. Only one shop that I know of in Saint John even owns a cone roaster, while the rest, I can only guess, use a commercial grade donair meat that’s simply sliced and served.  It’s easy to tell the difference and the non-cone varieties just aren’t that great.  Onion chunks wreck a donair (they should be thinly sliced), too much donair sauce wrecks it, and there are many ways to destroy a pita for a donair.

I recently had the worst donair in years from a local Saint John-area shop.  Dry, black-edged meat, mushy tomato, huge chunks of onion, too much donair sauce (to compensate for the wretched meat maybe?) and a pita that was cooked so crisp it could only be folded into three straight edges to hold it’s contents.  Just awful.

So is this where we’re at with the donair? Fine, I’ll do it myself.

Following my own religious beliefs of what a donair should be, I set out to recreate it at home. I’d have to adapt the recipe a bit as, like most Saint John donair shops, I also don’t own a cone spit roaster.  But using a technique that produces the carmelized surface in the oven, the result was quite similar to the cone. I do have a bbq spit that I’ll use once the weather’s a bit warmer and perhaps that will make the result even better and closer to my ideal.

Hawk’s Halifax Donair – “All We Do Is Donairs!”

The meat:

1 lb regular ground beef (not too lean)
good pinch each salt, dried thyme, cayenne powder, oregano and garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper (it should be quite peppery)
1/4 cup chopped sweet onion
1 tablespoon all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 400 F.  Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until well blended to an almost-paste and the mixture comes together in a ball.   Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and grease it with oil.  Drop the meat ball onto the sheet and with lightly-oiled hands, flatten out the mixture to fill the pan, or the meat’s only about a 1/2 inch thick.  Bake the meat until browned and cooked through, about 20 minutes (but watch it closely). Let cool slightly then slice the meat on a diagonal to get the widest strips possible. Serve immediately in your donair. Leave the rest unsliced and store in the refrigerator so you can slice and re-heat to order. Remember, think of your customers.

Donair sauce

I make my donair sauce less sweet than the traditional (It’s my opinion that the original sauce was likely not as sweet as we’re used to in the Maritimes now).

1 can regular evaporated milk (not light)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 cup vinegar

Put the milk in a bowl and add the sugar and garlic powder. Stir very well for several minutes to completely dissolve the sugar.  While stirring the milk vigorously with a spoon, add the vinegar all at once and then stir for just a few seconds.  Cover and let stand in the fridge for at least an hour to continue to thicken.  Why are tiny tubs of this sold separately for up a $1? I don’t know.

The toppings

1 sweet spanish onion, peeled and finely sliced
tomatoes, seeded and finely diced

The onions should be sliced, not diced so they’re easier to eat and stay in the sandwich.  Tomatoes should be drained of the watery seeds so the donair doesn’t get excessively watery.

The pita

Use any fresh, good quality pita. Mother Nature’s pitas in Saint John work well or you can make your own.  Heat a large, preferably cast iron or other decent non-stick surface over medium high heat for several minutes.  Dip your pita in a bowl of water, drain excess and throw it in the hot pan.  Cook until very slightly crisp and turn over. Cook for just a few seconds to dry the other side then remove and assemble your donair.

The donair:

With your pita and donair meat hot and at the ready, it’s time to assemble the donair.  Add a couple tablespoons of donair sauce to the lighter side of the pita.  Add as much sliced donair meat as you’d like , then add the sliced onions and tomatoes. Top with another tablespoon or so of donair sauce. Fold the bottom of the pita over then roll the pita tightly.  It’s a good idea to wrap it in foil like the shops do, to keep it together.  With that folded bottom, this should produce a donair that doesn’t drip too much on you, your family and your dog.  Enjoy.