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Foodscapes Near Me

Co-opting the gyro: Mediterranean cuisine and late-night cravings

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Foodscapes Near Me

Editor’s note: “Foodscapes Near Me” is a biweekly food anthropology column that explores the origins and evolution of dishes particular to college cuisine.

If it’s 1 a.m., your stomach rumbles, and you live in the U-District, chances are you know exactly where to go. Whether you just finished an exhausting day of cram studying or your night’s just barely begun, Aladdin Gyro-Cery (colloquially known as Aladdin’s) has been the UW’s go-to for late night meals for over two decades.

While their fries certainly have a reputation of their own, most students are there for the restaurant’s namesake gyro. Few things taste better in the middle of the night than a warm pita filled with fragrant spiced meats sliced from a slowly rotating vertical spit, topped with char-grilled onions and tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce. 

How did this delicious and inexpensive wrap become such a ubiquitous late-night staple of the American foodscape?

The gyro that Americans have come to know traces its origins to Greece, where the word gyro means “circle” or “turn” — a reference to the way the meat spins on a vertical skewer as it roasts. This unique preparation, also seen in popular dishes like shawarma or tacos al pastor, allows the fat to melt down the length of the kebab as it cooks, basting the meat and preventing it from drying out.

The similarities between gyros and shawarma are no accident. Both dishes have roots in the similarly prepared Turkish doner kebab and hark back to the proliferation of distinct Mediterranean flavors resulting from trade during the Ottoman empire. The Turkish doner kebab wasn’t introduced to Greece until the 1920s, and the gyros of today weren’t popularized in Athens until the 1950s. In many places, gyros are still interchangeably referred to as doner or doner kebab.

Though they descended from the Greek version, gyros in the United States have become their own unique creation. American gyro kebabs are typically a mixture of ground lamb and beef, and are seasoned with spices like oregano, thyme, rosemary, and cumin before being pressed into a log on the kebab skewer. The more traditional forms of preparation use stacks of sliced meat more similar to shawarma.

There is much debate as to who deserves credit for introducing the gyro to America. Its popularity rose in the late 1960s and ‘70s on the heels of a wave of Greek immigrants settling in New York City and Chicago. Mass production of gyro cones began in the 1970s and made the meat more affordable, allowing the dish to popularize as a street food. 

Despite Greek-owned restaurants having been in the Seattle area since the early 1900s, Greek cuisine did not appear on local menus until the 1960s and ’70s, according to John Nicon, co-founder of the Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State. 

“They [originally] did soup and sandwiches, American comfort food,” Nicon said. “World War II began, and people in the military had association with people with different cultures.”

Increasing acceptance of culinary diversity in the post-WWII era contributed to the rise in restaurants serving Greek cuisine. Interest in Greek culture also grew in the 1960s with the release of films like “Zorba the Greek'” and growing appeal toward the unique atmosphere of Greek restaurants.

“It was not just the Greek food,” Nicon said. “It was the music and the hospitality more than anything else.”

As of 2018, there were over 200 Greek restaurants in the Puget Sound region, some of which have been operating since the early 1900s. The gyro became a staple dish in many of these restaurants.

“It’s really a Greek hamburger,” Nicon said. “It’s pretty simple and basic to put together.”

Despite having gyros in its name, Aladdin Gyro-Cery is not a Greek restaurant. It describes itself as Mediterranean, a blanket term often used by restaurants serving a diverse range of cuisines. Aladdin’s serves both gyros and shawarma, in addition to a range of Syrian and Lebanese dishes. 

While Syrian and Lebanese cuisines fall within the category of Mediterranean, they could also be considered Middle Eastern — a label some restaurants intentionally forgo.

“[It] has a lot to do with the fact that ‘Middle Eastern’ is a word that people have very loaded associations with, and they’re not necessarily positive,” Dr. Nova Robinson, associate professor of history and international studies at Seattle University, said. “A Mediterranean label is more neutral and more enticing, regrettably.”

From gyros to shawarma and everything in between, Mediterranean cuisine has established itself firmly in the American foodscape through the hard work and dedication of several immigrant communities. The gyro you’re savoring at that late but hungry hour is but one humble representation of the long and complex history of the Mediterranean region, which has produced a diversity of overlapping cuisines.

As American awareness of distinctive regional cuisines grows, there is space to reshape perceptions of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern labels and foster a more open and accepting foodscape.

Reach columnist Taylor Zachary at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @trzzachary

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