A (spicy) beef between donair devotees divides Canada east to west

There is a saucy debate about what constitutes a 'proper' donair and whether you can find the real deal in Western Canada.

Edmonton donairs include 'sacrilegious' ingredients, Nova Scotian says

Nicholas Nahas, with King of Donair in Halifax, says a 'proper' donair contains thinly sliced spiced beef on pita, with tomatoes, onions and sweet sauce. But hold the lettuce. (Nicholas Nahas)

Forget pipelines, steel imports and trade talks. When it comes to dividing Canadians, nothing seems to provoke more fury than the presence of lettuce on a donair.

Adding lettuce to your spiced meat on pita is "sacrilegious," says Nicholas Nahas, the vice president of Halifax-based King of Donair. "We don't even carry it in store." 

He certainly doesn't plan to introduce greens to the list of ingredients at a string of new King of Donair stores in Alberta, the first of which opened in Edmonton last week.

But that won't stop his western competitors from making donairs their own way.

"I couldn't eat a donair without lettuce myself," says Adil Asim, the owner of four PrimeTime Donair and Poutine locations in Edmonton.

Asim, from Edmonton, said it's been more than 30 years since he had his first donair. The Edmonton recipe is the one he recognizes.

"It's been that way since I can remember," he said. "In Edmonton, we do donairs a little bit differently."

A regular donair at PrimeTime Donair and Poutine in Edmonton includes lettuce, as well as your typical tomato and onion toppings. (Adil Asim)

But does a donair that's done differently count as the real thing? Not according to Nahas.

It's hard to find a "proper donair" in Alberta, Nahas says. "They're just not done the East Coast way."

When city councillors chose the donair as Halifax's official food in 2015, one councillor said they had to claim it before Edmonton did. (Nicholas Nahas)

The donair, which is said to have been invented in Nova Scotia, and was declared Halifax's official food by city officials in 2015, is a late-night staple across much of the Maritimes.

According to Nahas, the genuine article features thinly sliced spiced beef on pita, topped with tomatoes, onions and a slightly sweet sauce. It has to be wrapped in tinfoil. Parchment paper doesn't cut it.

At Asim's stores in Edmonton, customers are invited to load up their donairs with jalapeno peppers, olives and sautéed mushrooms, among other items. They can also ask the cook to sauté their donair meat in one of six different flavours, including honey garlic or pineapple curry.

"These days people want to try something new," Asim says.

When it comes to choosing toppings at the new King of Donair location in Edmonton, the emphasis is on the traditional. (Nicholas Nahas)

People from the East Coast are "very protective of the donair," he says. "They come in quite skeptical at first."

But many of them eventually come around to a non-traditional donair, "Some of my best customers are Maritimers," Asim said.

Adil Asim, the owner of several donair shops in Edmonton, says Maritimers often come to appreciate a variety of toppings. (Adil Asim)

People should consider the Edmonton spin on the donair as a regional variation of a national food, he says.

A North American pizza is very different from the original Italian dish, Asim says. "But we still call it a pizza. The same goes for the donair — even with lettuce inside."

Nahas is not so sure.

"We don't want any beef with anyone," he said about his plans for expansion into the western market. "We're just trying to make the homesick East Coasters happy."

Colin Abbass and Kayla Burke opened a new King of Donair franchise in Edmonton in May. (Nicholas Nahas)

About the Author

Nina Corfu

Associate Producer

Nina Corfu has worked with CBC Nova Scotia since 2006, primarily as a reporter and producer for local radio programs. In 2018, she helped launch and build a national website for preteens called CBC Kids News. Get in touch by email: nina.corfu@cbc.ca

With files from the CBC's Information Morning.