Quick test: If I say “Turkish Food,” what comes to your mind?
Chances are it’s some sort of kebab, right? That’s surely what came to my mind when I had imagined my choices at Turkish restaurants and cafes prior to my arrival. Some sort of grilled meat, served in a wrap or on a stick. It was a disappointing thought to me, a traveler who loves to experience a country through its food but who happens to be vegetarian.
On my first morning in Istanbul, my friend Dani pointed me to the neighborhood borekçi and counselled me to breakfast on a greasy savoury pastry filled with white cheese and spinach. As I wandered with a full stomach down the alleys off Istaklal Caddesi, I spotted other vegetarian snacks for sale at food stalls – grilled corn, chestnuts, and several varieties of simit (bagels – one with sesame, another with tahini and sugar) – that made for an excellent picnic lunch in the park. Later, when I sat for an afternoon drink at a café, a man walked by selling raw almonds topped with ice.
It seemed that I had made it through my first day as a vegetarian in Turkey without starving.
Over the following weeks, I learned about other vegetarian Turkish foods. I sampled kumpir (baked potato loaded with a variety of pickled veggies) and gӧzleme (a crêpe filled with white cheese, spinach and potato). I tried çig kӧfte, a wrap that used to be stuffed with raw meat balls, but was now more often made with bulgar, chilis and tomato paste. And I feasted on mixed mezze platters with Dani, dipping bread into roasted red pepper dip, garlicky yogurt, and walnut and tomato spread (my favorite). Mezzes were my Turkish saving grace – something I could eat as an actual meal that was always vegetarian.
But this was Istanbul, a cosmopolitan city. People understood when I muttered vegetarian as I pointed to a tasty-looking treat. The same rules didn’t apply in Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey’s equivalent of the wild, wild west. I’d told Bruno about lokantas, cafeteria-style restaurants I’d discovered in Istanbul where the cooks whip up a few dishes of the day, you point, fill your plate, and pay by weight or portion. That’s where I’d learned the art of pointing and asking “vegetarian?”
When I spotted a lokanta around lunchtime, a dozen lovely-looking dishes displayed at the window in bain-maries, I waltzed in confidently. I was looking forward to guiding Bruno through his first Turkish meal. There was a stew with purple eggplant peeking out, another one with thick fasulye green beans. I played the pointing game. With every dish. But each of them had tiny chunks of meat floating around in the thick broth. I had to settle on mercimek çorba (lentil soup), bread, and salad.
Don’t get me wrong. Turkish çorba is really good. It uses sumac, an indescribably lovely spice I’d never tasted before and will now forevermore associate with this soup. I was just frustrated that Turks would ruin perfectly lovely vegetable stews with their meat chunks!
I was to eat çorba a lot that week. It – along with the ubiquitous bread and salad that’s served at every table – was practically the only vegetarian thing every restaurant seemed to have in Turkey’s wild, wild west. But I wanted my Turkish experience of food to be slightly wider that soup.
I forced myself to adventure away from the lokantas. I learned some Turkish words – mostly related to food – and dragged Bruno into salonus and pideçis to try new foods. With my new key phrases, etsiz yekem var muh? (do you have something without meat?), I began to try new foods. I tasted menemen, Turkey’s take on scrambled eggs. They came served on a mini hot plate, scrambled with tomatoes, onions, and green pepper, and served – of course – with ample cups of çay and a loaf of sliced bread. I tasted pide, thin, canoe-shaped pizzas, made to order with cheese and vegetables. You could taste the wood-fire oven in the crisp, buttery crust. I tried mantı (ravioli) stuffed with soya in a tomato and yogurt sauce and sprinkled with colourful spices. I tried patlıcan (aubergine) in every form available – chopped and fire-roasted, melt-in-your-mouth grilled, and bathed in olive oil. I tried vegetable stew cooked in a clay pot and ceremoniously hammered open in front of us.
And, of course, I continued to sample mezzes whenever I could. Technically, mezzes are the Turkish equivalent of apéro snacks – vegetable spreads to be served with bread and a drink while your main dish is being prepared. I solved that problem by always ordering mezze platters rather than single mezze plates. It allowed me to try a greater variety of spreads and acted as a main meal. I’ll never forget the mixed mezze platter at Topdeck Cave Restaurant in Capadocchia’s Gӧreme – the platter contained fourteen different spreads, including hummus, dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice), and bean salad. It was my best experience of mezze in Turkey.
After meals (and between, if I’m being honest), I’d sample Turkish desserts, of which there are many. Rice pudding, fried flour dough balls doused in honey, dondurma (“sticky” ice cream) – the Turks know how to do dessert. Their bahklava is the best in the world, flaky layers of pastry dusted with pistachio shavings and dripping with syrup. And their lokum, which I’d never tried before, is a gelatinous (though vegetarian!) bar in a variety of flavours and colors, sometimes with hazelnuts or pistachios inside and sometimes coated in powdered sugar. My favourite flavour was rose, though I was never to find rose lokum as good as in Istanbul, where there were actually dried rose petals around the square that burst with rose flavour.
There was one vegetarian food I hadn’t yet tried – kahvaltı, Turkey’s infamous breakfast. I’d first experienced the ritual when I’d watched Zelal, my Turkish roommate, prepare her elaborate breakfast. A boiled egg, a block of white cheese, honey, jam, tomatoes, olives, cucumber, bread, and tea (of course) – all spread out picnic-style on the table. It looked weird. I mean, cucumbers for breakfast? Savoury and sweet mixed together? I wasn’t at all interested in eating those combinations for breakfast.
But for lunch? Kahvaltı could make a good lunch, I thought. I was willing to try – it was vegetarian, after all.
One late morning, at a little café on the edge of the Mediterranean, Bruno and I finally hunkered down and tasted kahvaltı. Each ingredient came out on a little individual plate. I started with the innocuous parts – the egg, the vegetables, the bread. Next to me, Bruno was spreading honey on his bread and popping it in his mouth along with big chunks of cheese. I tried it, and my eyeballs rolled back in their sockets. I tried the homemade fig jam with the white cheese. My eyeballs rolled back again. I tried the kaymak – clotted cream – and, no joke, my eyes rolled back yet again. It was ah-may-zing!
This is when my understanding of Turkish food really started to come together, I think. This is when I began to understand the Turkish people’s true relationship to produce. I began to notice things like dried apricots for sale on the side of the highway, statues of oranges or cherries standing proudly as the mascots of villages, locals picking lemons and mulberries off fruit trees in town.
I began to visit the local farmers’ markets, and to really look. What I saw astounded me. There was fresh milk sold in Coca Cola bottles, homemade yogurt in wooden vats, more varieties of young white cheese than I ever thought possible (and all of them really, really good – I know, I got to sample loads of them!). And of course, more fresh fruit and vegetables than I’d ever seen in a market.
I’d read that Turkey is one of the world’s few countries that can entirely feed itself and still have leftovers to export. What I was beginning to understand, however, is that the Turkish people not only grow loads of produce – they love it. It wasn’t just Zelal, whom I’d watched taste her way around every stall at the vegetable market in Istanbul, and who crunched on raw veggies all day every day. It was all Turkish people, generally.
How else could I explain the fresh vegetables, decorated with parsley leaves, or the jars of pickled vegetables placed on every restaurant table? How else could I explain the cold mezzes made entirely of vegetables and so much a part of Turkish food culture? I thought back to the many locals’ picnics I’d sneaked peaks at and remembered that they all included whole cucumbers, olives, and tomatoes. As I walked through Selcuk’s farmer’s market and filled my bags with locally-produced and locally-loved fresh produce, I finally understood that vegetarian food was actually the soul of Turkish cuisine.
Turkish food hasn’t become my favorite in the world. It’s a bit too heavy on the bread and olive oil, and it doesn’t have the spice kick I love in Indian and Thai food. But it was an integral part of my experience of Turkey, helping me to understand and appreciate Turkish people, history, and culture in a deeper way. I’ve discovered new favorite foods – mezze, kahvaltı, pide, çorba. I’ve gained a whole new respect for aubergine. And I’ve included a few new food ideas into my own repertoire– yogurt dip with garlic and cucumbers, and picnics of white cheese, jam, and bread.
I guess we can say that my search for vegetarian food in Turkey was a success.