Vegetarian Food in Turkey: What to Expect

Being a vegetarian, I tried to do some research before traveling to Turkey regarding food. After all, food can be the deciding factor in choosing a destination and enjoying a trip. Most websites I found said that’s it’s easy to find vegetarian food in Turkey, and this is more or less true, but after reading such assurances we were surprised, on actually going there, by how limited our options were.

The first thing to understand is that Turkey has very few foreign restaurants. Nineteen out of twenty restaurants are Turkish, and even in sizable cities it can be hard to find non-Turkish food. There are a few Indian restaurants and a few Chinese restaurants, and you may want to seek them out if and when you want an alternative to the local cuisine. The rest of the time, you’ll be eating Turkish food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The second thing is that while there are lots and lots of Turkish restaurants, by and large they serve the same things. Walking around Sultanahmet, you’ll be approached by host after host asking you to look at their menu, but the fact is every menu is nearly the same. Turkish restaurants don’t go for culinary innovation. There’s no experimentation, no nouveau cuisine. Instead there’s the same vegetables in saffron sauce, the same pilav, prepared with small variations. Once you’ve eaten a dish at one restaurant, you have a good idea what to expect at the others.

Within these bounds, the food is generally well-prepared and flavorful. Turkish food heavily favors certain vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, and onions. Generally they do not use legumes in main dishes, so you’ll have to rely on eggs, cheese, mezes and soups if you want more protein.

While this is fine for ovo-lacto vegetarians, vegans face considerably greater challenges. Many dishes are cooked in butter and cream. The cold meze platter is safe enough for dinner, but breakfast especially offers few options beyond fruit and bread (if the bread is vegan). If you plan to make your own meals, choose your hostels carefully: most Turkish hostels don’t have kitchens, and ask that you not bring in outside food. If you have a private room, the last is easy to ignore, but Turkish markets also offer little in the way of healthy ready-to-eat items.

Anyway, here’s a detailed breakdown of vegetarian options:

Turkish breakfast

Breakfast: A buffet breakfast is included at virtually all Turkish hostels and hotels, so it’s a good opportunity to fill up early. The buffet will invariably include hard-boiled eggs, white bread, cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, olives, white cheese, fresh fruit (most often watermelon), butter, honey, çay (tea), and instant coffee. Usually there’s also yogurt. Additional items may include muesli, cereal, milk, croissants, various other cheeses, dried fruit, and sigara borek (rolled phyllo dough stuffed with feta and/or spinach).

Lunch: Lunch was a persistent challenge for us, partly because we didn’t know all our options. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money at restaurants, especially since we’d likely be eating at those same restaurants for dinner, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of other choices. For meat eaters, döner (shaved roasted meat in a pita) is ubiquitous and cheap, but there seemed to be no equivalent for vegetarians. At first, we mostly we either ate pide (melted cheese on a flat pita, essentially a Turkish pizza; actual pizza is also common), or found a local market and bought crackers and cheese.

Later, someone introduced us to cig köfte. Now, köfte is meatballs, so this was a little confusing for us: obviously we didn’t want meatballs. And reading online, it seemed cig köfte was a traditional dish of raw meatballs, so clearly we wanted that even less. However, in the last decades the raw-meat version of the dish has been outlawed for public health reasons, and it’s been replaced with a vegan substitute made of chickpeas or walnuts. There’s no meat involved whatsoever, and there are small fast-food joints that specialize in the dish. It’s also cheap, fast, and flavorful: the perfect thing for lunch when you’re out shopping or seeing the sights. Ask for a cig köfte durum, and you’ll get a tortilla wrap with walnut/chickpea paste, plentiful iceberg lettuce and/or arugula, spicy barbecue sauce and sweet pomegranate syrup (the sauces are optional but recommended).

Cig köfte durum

There are also two kinds of soup that became a staple for us, at lunch and dinner both. The first is mercimek çorbası, or lentil soup, a light soup of strained lentils served with lemon wedges and pita. It’s absolutely delicious, very reasonably priced, and provides the protein you’ll probably be craving. Be warned, however, that it is often made with chicken stock, so you may wish to ask before ordering.

In a similar vein is ezogelin, a red lentil and tomato soup seasoned with mint, again served with lemon and pita. This was one of our favorite dishes in Turkey, and perhaps the best lentil soup I’ve had anywhere.

Often we would order a soup with a green salad (yeşil salata), which varied far more than the soup. Always the salad would have cucumber and tomato (one time, only those), generally lettuce or arugula, sometimes green peppers and white onion.

Many cafes also advertise gözleme, which they describe as a “pancake.” Well, it’s not a pancake: it’s more like a crepe, with cheese and other fillings pressed between two thin layers of pastry. Turks often accompany it with ayran, a yogurt drink similar to kefir.

Supper:

Supper offers considerably more choices, with prices varying widely; restaurants outside tourist areas can be half the price of those inside. We’ll start with the cold meze (appetizer) platter, which is delicious and found at most every dinner restaurant. In general the meze platter is all vegetarian, but there may be a non-vegetarian platter available as well, so ask to be sure. The platter may include:

humus – simpler and less potent than its Middle Eastern versions
patlican salatası (eggplant salad) – mashed eggplant, similar to baba ganoush
saksuka – cubed eggplant with tomato sauce
cacık – yogurt with cucumber and fresh herbs
• ezme – spicy tomato salad
• roasted red pepper and walnut tapenade
• yogurt with roasted red pepper
• dolmas – grape leaves stuffed with rice
• olives
• pita or flatbread

Several hot vegetarian entrees are also common:

vegetable pilaf – rice and orzo with sauteed vegetables, typically some combination of bell peppers, carrots, eggplants, zucchini, green beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes
vegetables in saffron sauce – essentially the same vegetables as above, sauteed in a buttery saffron cream sauce and served with rice
• vegetable casserole – ditto, but with tomato sauce instead
vegetarian pastry – same vegetables, this time layered with cheese and thin hand-rolled dough (similar to crepes)
vegetable kebab (kebap) – just what it sounds like. Be warned, also, that an “eggplant kebab” may include pieces of sausage; ask when ordering.

Street food:
Most street food in Turkey is vegetarian. Common items include:

simit a bagel-like twisted bread covered in sesame seeds
mısır – corn on the cob
• roasted chestnuts

All considered, it’s true, it’s not difficult to be vegetarian in Turkey, although you might start craving broccoli or tofu after a while. As a side benefit, I found the Turkish diet remarkably easy on the digestion – nary a stomach ache in sight.

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