Everyone likes Gyros and Souvlaki, mainly wrapped in pita bread, but how much do you know about these two famous Greek street foods?
Gyros is Greece’s very popular delicacy and something you can’t probably forget about after a trip to Greece. The word Gyros – pronounced “yee-ros” – basically means “turn”. Gyros is a tapered tower of thinly sliced meat, usually pork or chicken, that rotates and cooks on a vertical rotisserie. The layers meld together as the tightly packed stack roasts upright, and the grill person handling the Gyros rotisserie slices off paper-thin slices.
As the existing historical information is little, the root of Gyros has not yet been identified. Most of the historical records available suggest that the roots of the Gyros dish come from Oltu Kebap, a small town in Erzurum, Turkey. At first, the meat was grilled horizontally in Oltu and was then sliced into large and thick bits and served.
Grilling on a vertical rotisserie came in the nineteenth century from the city of Bursa in Asia Minor, a city known for its rich gastronomy with a large Greek community. Doner Kebab was the initial form. James Robertson shot the earliest known picture of a doner kebab in 1855 in the Ottoman Empire.
Doner kebab is similar to today’s Gyros, except that it is enjoyed with lamb or beef by Muslim people. It was a favorite popular dish of the inhabitants of this city. Of course, Gyros has expanded to other towns of the Ottoman Empire, which is why it is now sold in many parts of the Arab world.
Gyros arrived in Greece with the hundreds of thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees from Asia Minor after the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922. Most arrived from Smyrna (Ismir) and Constantinople. The migrants built tiny shops selling Gyros, which helped boost the prominence of the meal.
The first handlers of Gyros in Athens were Armenians. The dish started to expand to other regions of Greece when the citizens of Athens caught on. Following the migrant trends of the Greeks themselves, Gyros began traveling west after WWII, so shops started showing up throughout Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. Nowadays, Gyros is being enjoyed all over the world.
But did you ever question how the Gyros is made? The great secret of this dish is the fresh meat. In Greece, Gyros is usually made of pork or chicken and needs 1-2 hours to be prepared. Meat is sliced into roughly round, thin slices for hand-made gyros, which are then placed on a spit and seasoned. Cumin, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and others can be part of the seasoning. The parts of meat are mounted on a tall vertical rotisserie in the form of an inverted cylinder, which spins gradually next to a heater. As the cone turns, the exterior of the meat gets done and then it is vertically cut into small, crisp shavings.
In Greece, it is typically eaten in oiled, lightly grilled pita bread, rolled with sliced tomatoes, diced onions, and fries, topped with tzatziki sauce, brushed with paprika, and often with mustard or ketchup. A unique tomato sauce, simply named “red sauce,” is applied to pita Gyros only in Corfu.
Except that the Souvlaki replaces the Gyros, all the pita-sandwich ingredients are about the same. And here comes Souvlaki!!
Souvlaki is one of the most recognizable delights of Greek gastronomy, made up of tiny pieces of meat and frequently vegetables grilled on a skewer.
It’s commonly eaten right off the skewer when it’s still hot. It may be eaten wrapped in pita bread like the Gyros, but the Souvlaki itself is enjoyed on its own, sometimes with side dishes. Pork and chicken are the most commonly used meats to make Souvlaki.
The term Souvlaki is a shortened form of the Greek medieval “souvla,” which means “skewer,” borrowed from the Latin “subula.”
In Greek culture, the tradition of cooking food on spits or skewers goes back to the Bronze Era. Excavations in Santorini, Greece, discovered collections of stone cooking supports used by the island’s inhabitants before the 17th century BC eruption of Thera.
Small portable clay grills with handles and skewers also were identified, dating back to the Mycenaean and Minoan eras. In the Iliad, Homer describes Achilles cooking bits of meat on the embers. In Greek historiography, in the scripts of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Aristotle, among others, they also appear. Alexander the Great’s army was known for skewering and roasting numerous meat cuts over an open fire on long swords.
A French adventurer, who noticed Greeks “grilling chunks of meat on a bamboo stick” through his trip to the Greek rural areas in 1850, identified modern-day souvlaki.
The first shop in Greece to sell Souvlaki on pita bread launched in 1924. Its owner was an Armenian named Isaac Meraklidis, who fled as a political migrant to Egypt and ended up in Athens.
The Souvlaki was served for the first time on a wooden straw with bread in 1951 in the city of Livadia. However, after the Second World War, Souvlaki was not commonly available in Greece. Souvlaki as fast food began to be widely sold in the 1960s.
The Dictatorship of the Colonels in 1967 forced the use of only pork. Therefore, the gyros, the Souvlaki, and all other meats manufactured during that period in the grill shops were made only of pork.
The Souvlaki consists of bits of roasted pork (or chicken) passed on a thin wooden reed skewer, typically eaten with a slice of bread or a pita cut in four pieces, or wrapped with tomatoes, onions, French fries and tzatziki in a pita bread.
Pita is exclusively a Greek recipe. The Italians asked the Greek bakers during the Italian occupation (WW2) to make galettes for their soldiers. Galette is a type of Italian bread that can be stored for a long period.
In the form of Asia Minor bread that looked like a pie instead of a cake, Greek bakers influenced by their experience would make the most delightful pita bread we know today, and it was probably a success with the Italian occupation army.
The first ones in the world to produce the round Pita bread were two bakeries in Athens. Today’s production of Pita amounts to at least 250,000 a day, while only Greek companies systematically produce Pita to export around the globe.
In ancient sources, a sauce was found to be focused on an especially costly form of cheese made from mixed donkey and mare’s milk accompanying the sliced meats.
Then, this specific cheese was substituted with goat cheese, and later, the mild goat cheese put in the pita was replaced by the low-cost yogurt, and the sauce finally became popular as Tzatziki.
Every genuine Greek dish is a wonderful story and a journey through space and time. The periods and fashion trends come and go, but some foods, utensils, and Greek gastronomic community words have remained the same for centuries.
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