This guest post was written by Sarah, a passionate vegan who loves to eat and travel. She blogs about her travel at Bliss Vagabond.
Despite what many Turks will tell you, being vegan in Turkey is easy. Yes, Turks love their meat and restaurants tend to serve meat-heavy dishes, but once you know what to look for, staying vegan and staying healthy while traveling the country is a delicious and stress-free undertaking.
First, a few words about what to watch out for. Cooked food, including mercimek çorbası (lentil soup) and pilav (rice) often contain chicken or meat stock. I tend to avoid these as a rule because even when you ask if it’s made with meat stock (“Et suyu var mı?”), your server may not know the answer or may simply tell you what they think you want to hear. Margarine is often used as a butter substitute, but much of the margarine in Turkey is not vegan. Yogurt is generally eaten at every meal, but is often served on the side and is therefore easy to avoid.
Now to the good news: the plethora of delicious and naturally vegan food awaiting you!
Eating at Restaurants (lokanta)
One of the most reliable, cheap, healthy, and delicious vegan meals in Turkey is çiğ köfte. Pronounced chee kuf-teh, this dish used to be made with raw meat (ew!) but, luckily for us, health regulations have outlawed this. Nowadays, çiğ köfte is a spicy spread made of fine bulgur, tomatoes, and red pepper paste. Still, before buying I always make sure to double check. Just ask “Etsiz mi?” (that’s pronounced eht-seez mee). I recommend you order it as a durum (wrap). Each restaurant will have its own particular style, but in general you can expect your wrap to be spread with the çiğ köfte and a spicy pepper sauce, then stuffed with parsley, lettuce, arugula, maybe mint, drizzled with fresh lemon juice and pomegranate molasses, and sprinkled with salt. Any of these elements may be eliminated at your request. A durum will usually cost you no more than 3.00 Turkish Lira (about $2.00). Çiğ köfte restaurants will generally only serve çiğ köfte or very little else, so they are pretty easy to spot and I’ve seen them in just about every city in Turkey, making them a convenient, quick, and cheap vegan meal.
Ev Yemekleri a.k.a Home Cookin’ Restaurants
If you’re in the mood for a sit-down meal, search for an ev yemekleri (home cooking) restaurant. Though Turks like to eat meat when they go out, the truth is that Turkish home cooking is very vegetarian and vegan-friendly. In most ev yemekleri restaurants you can expect to find a range of vegan dishes possibly including patates salata (potato salad), kısır (Turkish tabbouleh), mercimek köfte (lentil balls or kibbe), etsiz sarma (meatless stuffed grapeleaves or cabbage leaves), and etsiz dolma (meatless stuffed peppers, zucchini, tomatoes or eggplants). With the dolma and sarma it is especially important to ask “Etsiz mi?” (pronounced eht-seez mee?) because they are sometimes stuffed with minced meat as well as with rice. If you feel confident with your speaking skills, the key phrase to know is “Et yemiyorum” (pronounced eht yeh-mee-yore-rum), which means I don’t eat meat. Use this phrase and the staff at the restaurant will be able to point out the dishes which don’t contain meat, and unless you can see yogurt in the dish, it will be vegan as well.
Gözleme – The Turkish Crepe
Another option to look out for, though one that is less common, is a restaurant which serves gözleme. One way to describe gözleme is as a savory (eggless) Turkish crepe—layers of thin bread stuffed with veggies. My favorite is the ıspnaklı (spinach) or patatesli (potato); just be sure to ask for your gözleme to be “peynirsiz” (pronounced pay-neer-seez), which means without cheese. A similar and more common snack is ıspnaklı or patatesli pide, which is a pita-like flatbread that is stuffed with spinach or potatoes. Again, make sure to ask for “peynirsiz”.
If you can’t find any of the above options, don’t despair. Buffet style restaurants, with hot dishes, salads, desserts, bread and drinks are very common. You can breeze right by the cooked dishes and get a salad. A salad?! I know you didn’t come all the way to Turkey to eat salad, but trust me, these are far more inventive than a few leaves of undressed iceberg lettuce. Traditional Turkish salads often include parsley, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and a dressing of lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, and oil. The bread will be included in the meal as Turks can grudgingly live without meat, but never without bread!
Shopping & Cooking
Fruit & Vegetable Markets
If restaurants are hard to find or if you are in the mood for something different, you can generally eat pretty well from the plentiful markets and grocery stores in every city. Turkish fruit and vegetables are fresh and seasonal and almost always grown within Turkey, if not in nearby villages.
Organic fruits and veggies, especially tomatoes, are becoming available in more places but can still be pretty sparse in some areas. If it’s important to you to eat organic, it’s worth searching for. Organic items will be labeled with the term term “hormonsuz”.
The healthiest options in supermarkets include fresh bread, nuts, dried fruit and an assortment of canned mezes, or appetizers (something akin to tapas). These canned mezes generally include bean salads, stuffed grape leaves, fried eggplant, stuffed eggplant, and flat green beans with tomato.
Snacks & Street Food
Simit – The Famous Bread
The most ubiquitous Turkish snack food is the humble simit, a twisted, bagel-like bread thickly covered in sesame seeds. Just be sure to get the darker, chewier kind and steer clear of bread with an obvious egg wash on top (it will be shiny).
Cezerye – A Vegan Treat
One of my favorite Turkish snack foods is cezerye (pronounced jehz-air-yeh). Cezerye is similar in texture to Turkish delight—chewy and dense—but is made from carrots which have been cooked and cooked for hours until their natural sweetness is condensed. It is the carrots which give cezerye its rich orange color. You can find cezerye peppered with either pistachios, walnuts or hazelnuts.
Ask to taste the cezerye before you buy it as quality varies widely and so does the amount of sugar used. In the nicer şekerleme (confectionary) shops, you can find şekersiz (pronounced shayk-air-seez), which is cezerye made without sugar.
Nuts & Dried Fruit
Of course, nuts and dried fruit are widely available in Turkey. These are pretty self-explanatory but some of my favorites include hazelnuts, dried figs, dates, and the smaller Turkish pistachios.
Noah’s Pudding – A Unique Dessert
Almost all Turkish desserts rely heavily on butter, milk or eggs but there is one notable exception: aşure (pronounced ah shoo reh). Aşure is an unusually healthy pudding-like sweet which is seemingly made from every item in the pantry—nuts, seeds, dried fruit, pulses and even beans. Some typical ingredients in aşure include chickpeas, white beans, barley, wheat, rice, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, sesame seeds, apricots, currants, sultanas, figs and pomegranate seeds. Aşure is a very traditional dessert, usually eaten during the Kurban Bayramı after Ramazan. The legend of aşure dates back to biblical times. It is said that when the flood subsided, Noah and other residents of the ark wanted to celebrate but they had very little food remaining, so they combined every little scrap of food they had and cooked them all together to make aşure, which is also know as Noah’s pudding.
As you can see, there are lots of vegan options to be found in Turkey. You just have to know what to look for.