What is Souvlaki?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Souvlaki, which means "little skewers" in Greek, is the Grecian equivalent of fast foods such as American hamburgers or British fish and chips. Indeed, many Grecian cities are heavily populated with stands and small take-out shops specializing in souvlaki. Although the native Greek residents have reportedly developed more of a taste for American fast foods, these vendors still do brisk business selling platters and sandwiches to tourists visiting the islands.

Souvlaki may be cooked on skewers.
Souvlaki may be cooked on skewers.

The name is actually a generic term for several different meats cooked on skewers and served with vegetables, rice, beans and/or pita bread. Traditionally, Greek souvlaki is made from marinated pork or lamb, but beef and chicken versions have become increasingly popular. There are even some vendors who serve swordfish. The traditional dish is not to be confused with the cones of minced beef and lamb held on a vertical rotisserie for use in gyro sandwiches. A gyro sandwich may be called souvlaki on occasion, but souvlaki meat may also be served on skewers or as part of a platter.

A gyro sandwich containing souvlaki.
A gyro sandwich containing souvlaki.

Ordering souvlaki can also be a challenge for tourists, since different vendors and restaurants interpret it a little differently. If a tourist wants the pita sandwich containing meat, onions, tomatoes and cucumber (tzatziki) sauce, for example, he or she may need to specifically order the sandwich or the special souvlaki. If not, the cook may prepare a very large, and rather expensive, platter containing substantial portions of grilled lamb or pork, along with various vegetables, sauces and rices. The gyro sandwich containing souvlaki meat may be called several different things on the menu, including doner kebab.

Doner meat being cut off the spit with a knife.
Doner meat being cut off the spit with a knife.

Many diners may be familiar with the Turkish dish called shish kebab, which is in reality a version of souvlaki featuring meat and vegetables roasted on skewers. Doner kebab is another popular variant on the theme, with doner meat often found as a pizza topping or the filling in a popular British "pub grub" sandwich. Tzatziki sauce, a cucumber and yogurt-based condiment, is traditionally served with souvlaki or gyro sandwiches, but some may prefer to use other creamy dressings or even barbecue or chili sauces for added spice.

Pita bread, which is used for making souvlaki.
Pita bread, which is used for making souvlaki.
Spice-rubbed roast chicken is a staple in souvlaki and other Greek dishes.
Spice-rubbed roast chicken is a staple in souvlaki and other Greek dishes.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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