For lovers of Greek cuisine, souvlaki and gyro are two dishes that frequently top the must-eat list when visiting Greece. Both dishes involve meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. However, they have some distinct differences in ingredients, preparation, serving style and origins. In this post, we’ll unravel the tasty mysteries of souvlaki versus gyro so you can better appreciate these iconic Greek street foods.
What is Souvlaki?
Souvlaki refers to small, cubed pieces of meat grilled on a skewer. The word comes from the Medieval Greek “souvla” meaning skewer or spit. Historically, souvlaki originated as a convenient cooking method Greek shepherds used to grill meat over an open fire while tending their flocks.
The classic souvlaki skewers use pork, chicken or lamb cubes alternated with vegetables like peppers, onions and tomatoes. The meat is usually marinated ahead of time in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. This imparts a wonderful depth of Greek flavor as the souvlaki grills.
Souvlaki is cooked slowly over a charcoal rotisserie to let the meat fully absorb the flavors of the marinade while developing a light char. The souvlaki skewers are typically served with warm pita bread, tzatziki sauce, sliced onions and fried potatoes. You simply slide the meat and veggies off the skewer into the pita to create a delicious Greek sandwich.
Rich History of Souvlaki
There are several theories about the origins of souvlaki. Some sources believe Ancient Greek soldiers cooked meat on their swords over open fires. Others link souvlaki to the culinary influences of Turkish kebabs and Middle Eastern shish kebabs introduced during Ottoman rule.
Regardless of exact origins, souvlaki became a popular street food throughout Greece by the 19th century. Skilled souvlaki masters worked the grills outside taverns whipping up skewers for hungry locals and travelers. The tantalizing aromas of char-grilled souvlaki still fill the streets today in cities like Athens, drawing in crowds.
What Makes Gyro Different?
Like souvlaki, gyro also refers to meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie but has some notable differences. The biggest is the style of meat preparation. While souvlaki uses meat cubes on skewers, gyro meat is sliced from a large, seasoned cylindrical mass.
The name gyro comes from the Greek word “yeiro” meaning “turn” or “circle” referring to the rotating rotisserie. Typically, the cylindrical meat mass is made from lamb, beef or a blend. It’s stacked and molded by pressing layers of thin meat together. Before cooking, the gyro meat is seasoned with a blend of Mediterranean spices like thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram and cumin.
The vertical rotisserie allows the gyro meat to cook quickly at high heat while constantly self-basting. The outside layers get crispy and full of flavor while the inner meat stays tender and juicy. Sliced gyro meat has a distinct pinkish hue from the blend of lamb and beef. The thin shavings are then stuffed into warm pita bread along with tomatoes, onions, tzatziki sauce and french fries.
Thegyro’s creation is credited to Greek and Middle Eastern immigrants who brought the dish to Athens, Greece in the early 19th century. From there, gyro became popular street fare and evolved into the quintessential Greek fast food we know today.
How They Are Prepared and Served
Souvlaki and gyro start with quite different raw ingredients despite both cooking on vertical spits. Souvlaki skewering individual meat cubes allows a customized mix of proteins like lamb, chicken or pork along with veggies. The cubes marinate to impart flavor before getting slowly grilled.
In contrast, gyro starts with a large blended meat loaf heavily seasoned and pressed together to form the cooking cylinder. It requires specialized equipment to form the loaf onto the spit before high heat roasting. Thin shavings are then carved to order.
This means souvlaki can be served straight off the skewer as cooked with various dipping sauces on the side. Gyro relies on the second preparation step of carving meat into the pita which brings additional ingredients like tzatziki, tomatoes and fries. So souvlaki highlights the flavors of the grilled meat and veggies themselves while gyro showcases how the meat mingles with toppings and sauce inside the bread.
Global Rise of the Gyro
While souvlaki remains quintessentially Greek, gyro has gained global fame, especially in areas with Greek immigrants. The gyro’s popularity outside of Greece seems connected to vertical rotisserie technology circa 1950’s. This allowed Greek diner owners in Germany, Canada, Australia and the US to conveniently mass produce gyro meat.
The gyro became a quick, tasty meal for workers and college students. By the 1970’s, gyros became a staple of Greek diners and take-out joints throughout North America. The iconic image of overstuffed gyros spinning hypnotically on rotating spits enticed hungry patrons.
Today gyro has transcended its status as ethnic street food with a distinct Greek pedigree. The sandwich appears on mainstream restaurant menus like Subway and Arby’s often “Americanized” with additions like cheese and ranch dressing. Purists may scoff, but gyro’s popularity proves the appeal of this Greek classic endures.
Appreciating Two Greek Classics
Souvlaki and gyro have certainly evolved from their origins as convenient grilled street meats. They now anchor entire Greek culinary traditions and remain icons of rustic Mediterranean cuisine. Whether you seek an authentic taste of Greece or a modern meaty sandwich, both souvlaki and gyro deliver satisfying flavors and textures.
Of course, the best way to settle the souvlaki versus gyro debate is to devour skewers dripping with lemon and oregano beside juicy, stuffed pita. The nuances become clear once you experience souvlaki’s smoky simplicity compared to gyro’s zesty over-the-top combinations. With such delicious cultural history powering every bite, souvlaki and gyro are two Greek classics that will continue pleasing palates for generations to come.