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 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.

The Herbivore’s Solution

I just finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, and it’s a book that demands a response, especially if, like me, you’re a vegetarian. I’m not going to bother summarizing the book’s contents, since the only likely reason you’d be interested in this response is if you’ve already read it. I’m also not going to spend a lot of time dissecting Pollan’s dismissive, patronizing attitude toward vegetarianism, because B.R. Myers already did so, very cuttingly, in the pages of The Atlantic.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Pollan gives short shrift to vegetarianism. If, after all, his conclusions had been different – if he had ended by endorsing a vegan or vegetarian diet – would his book have been such a bestseller? Well, maybe. There’s a great deal that’s worthwhile here, and maybe readers could overcome the discomfiture of having their diets pilloried for the sake of learning something about the origins of their food. I guess we’ll never know.

As it stands, though, the book to my mind does very much the opposite. Rather than challenging readers at a base dietary level, it instead provides a sort of moral cover for their bad behavior. Pollan would no doubt protest this reading, since the book advocates forcefully for small, sustainable, pastoral farms, modeled by Polyface Farms in Virginia, which Pollan presents as “a scene of almost classical pastoral beauty – the meadows dotted with contented animals, the backdrop of woods, a twisting brook threading through it all …” This “verdurous vista” contrasts sharply with the manure lagoons and mechanized feed mill of the industrial feedlot, “teeming and filthy and stinking.”

So here’s we’re presented with a choice: happy cows fed on green grass, or sad cows fed on industrial corn and liquefied fat? It’s a no-brainer, of course, although there remain those so committed to our destructive corporate system of monoculture crops that they’ll defend the feedlot to their dying breath. For the rest of us, we’d obviously prefer the farm that actually looks like a farm.

And Polyface Farms is a shining model of sustainability, or so Pollan would have us believe. The cows are moved from day to day over its pastures, never overgrazing, their manure contributing to the soil, the land becoming ever more fertile, the grass ever greener. The chickens too move in a daily round, pecking grubs out of the cow patties and adding their nitrate-rich droppings to the land. This is all part of a beautiful cycle, Pollan makes clear, wherein grasses take sunlight, water and soil and and turn them into energy that may be eaten by cows. The cows eat the grass, we eat the cows, and everyone’s happy (up until the moment the cows are shot in the head with a bolt gun, but never mind that).

Now there is, he notes in passing, another, simpler cycle, wherein humans grow plants and then eat the plants, thereby cutting out the cows, pigs or chickens as the unfortunate middlemen. But obviously humans can’t eat grass, so this scenario would never would work at Polyface Farms, and vegetarians are thus excluded from the utopia.

Of course, it would work everywhere else, including the thousands and thousands of acres currently devoted to corn and soy, very little of which is eaten by humans as corn and soy. The whole corn monoculture system, it turns out, is predicated on meat. Three-fifths of the corn crop goes directly to feeding livestock. Most of the rest is used to produce two things: ethanol and our favorite sweetener, high fructose corn syrup. Only a small fraction is used to feed humans directly.

Stop eating meat, and the whole system collapses. Of course, it would collapse anyway, if the government just stopped subsidizing corn. The farmers already don’t make much money from it, and survive only via government subsidy checks. Supporters (read: corporate lobbyists) say this makes food cheaper. But actually what it does – let’s be clear – is make meat cheaper. It doesn’t make vegetables cheaper, or tofu, or beans. To the contrary, by artificially reducing the cost of meat, corporations and government have succeeded in convincing people that vegetarianism is an elitist endeavor, the province of MFA graduates shopping at Whole Foods, while the poor fill themselves on three-dollar Big Macs at McDonald’s. Through most of the developing world, the situation is by nature reversed: the poor eat rice and beans, while the wealthy dine on steak.

And I do mean by nature. Eating lower on the food chain is inherently more energy-efficient. Sometimes you hear people defending monoculture farming by saying, “But there’s no other way to feed so many people! Food would be way more expensive!” This simply isn’t true. It’s meat, and meat alone, that would become more expensive. Dispense with raising meat – cattle, pigs, chickens – and you immediately free up vast amounts of energy and land to grow vegetarian food, or to move to less intensive, more ecologically sound farming practices, or simply to lie fallow.

Even so, I would never say that the Big Agra model is ideal. At the same time, I also don’t believe, as Pollan seems to, that the Polyface model is the only alternative for feeding people. It is the best alternative for meat production. But you’ll never learn what an ideal vegetarian farming community looks like from his book, because he never even considers it.

To Pollan, vegetarianism is historically limited to a few “dissenters”: “Ovid, St. Francis, Tolstoy, and Gandhi come to mind.” And granted, this is true in Europe, but the inclusion of Gandhi in that list should have reminded Pollan that most of the world’s vegetarians are in India – hundreds of millions of them. Are they just “dissenters”? And how are they surviving, when they lack both feedlots and ranches? What function do their cows have, when they don’t slaughter them after a year or two? What about China? You know, the other of the world’s two most populous nations, whose people have historically subsisted in large part on rice and soybeans? What about the millions of vegetarians in Southeast Asia and Japan? What about monastic farming communities in these countries, which may be the best models for sustainable vegetarian agriculture?

Pollan doesn’t answer these questions, because he doesn’t care to ask them. Having decided beforehand to eat meat, he’s concerned only with how to assuage his conscience afterwards.

But putting aside this very serious omission, I want to consider how his argument, such as it is, plays out in real life. The very premise of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that we are faced with too many choices in the grocery store, most of them bad. Virtually everything in a Safeway is produced industrially, from a can of soup to a package of beef to a head of broccoli. Go to Whole Foods, and you’ll find a greater variety of food sources, but from a consumer’s viewpoint, there’s not really more connection with the food. If you’re being “good,” you read the label and try to avoid the worst, minimizing the harm you’re doing just by eating. If you’re indulging yourself, you buy the chocolate-coated ice-cream sandwich and damn the consequences.

One way or another, though, you’re not actually going to the farm. Certainly you’re not driving miles and miles to buy a pasture-fed chicken (and let’s not even get into the ethics of burning gallons of gas for the sake of eating a more “natural” chicken).

What about the farmer’s market? Sure, awesome. Take the one here in Capitol Hill, which happens every Sunday from eleven to three, five or six months of the year. If you manage to make it there during those limited hours, you’ll find some delicious produce, pasture-fed meat, and farm-fresh eggs. Now, if you missed it, for whatever reason, or if it’s winter, then you’re out of luck. And what will you do? You’ll go to the grocery store, like everyone does. And I mean everyone, at least in the city. You’ll walk down the aisles and make your choices, and hope it’s all right.

You won’t actually know that it’s all right, though, since once again, you haven’t actually seen the fields, nor are you ever going to. There will remain, for your entire life, a gap between you and those fields, because that is the world in which we live. Because the simple truth is, we are not all farmers, nor have we been, for thousands of years, and now more than ever.

What I’m pointing to here is the gap between the ideal and the actual. Pollan is big on presenting the utopian farm and the “perfect meal,” but he’s shy on outlining how this actually is supposed to play out in real life. So far as I can tell, it means asking for pasture-fed meat at the grocery store. Or maybe going hunting, which he really seemed to enjoy.

Is that an improvement on feedlot cattle? Sure! Absolutely! Point granted! News flash, guys: Feedlots suck! So if you’re determined to eat meat, by all means, eat meat that’s at least been decently raised, or go kill it yourself.

Now, are you actually goingto do that? Because I’ve noticed something peculiar, in talking to people about this book. Lots of people have read it, including a lot of “foodies,” people involved in the restaurant industry. And they widen their eyes and say, “Yeah, it’s crazy!” and then return to eating their absolutely non-pasture-raised hamburger or steak or chicken or whatever. And they do this at meal after meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Do they know it’s wrong? Sure they do. And when they go to the grocery store, they might sometimes buy the better meat or eggs. Then again, they might not. They might be at a gas station, and decide that a one-dollar stick of beef jerky is just what they need that second. Where did it come from? Well, they’re not going to think about it right now. Or they’re drunk, and are they going to eat that hot dog from the stand? Hell yes! Or they’re at a restaurant, and are they really going to quiz the server about pasture-fed beef when they’re ordering? No, they’re not.

So let me ask you: Who doesn’t eat the jerky, even if they’re in a hurry? Who doesn’t eat the hot dog, even when they’re drunk? Who does quiz the server, even if it’s a pain?

Yeah, you know who. Vegetarians, that’s who.

Right now some meat-eaters are rolling their eyes, thinking, “God, how annoying!” But sorry, guys, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t earnestly resist these embedded corporate systems, these societal evils, and not offend anyone. You can’t press against the tide and not have it press back. You can’t eat two ethical meals a week, and nineteen clearly unethical ones, and pretend that you’re doing the right thing.

Faced with the opacity of the food market, vegetarians make a conscious choice to avoid the worst harm. The great advantage of this choice is its simplicity. No, I may not know the condition of the soil that the soybeans were grown in, or the evils of the corporation that grew them, or the minute details of how the beans were processed. But I do know one thing: no animal was involved along the way. No chicken had its beak cut off, no cow was dismembered alive, and no corn was wasted feeding those chickens and cows.

There’s a Sanskrit word for this approach: ahimsa, or non-harming, a central concept in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Basically it says: If you can’t do good, at least don’t do harm. Beyond that, it means extending kindness and compassion to all beings.

Occasionally people will ask me why I’m a vegetarian. I usually reply, “Because I think it’s wrong to kill something if you don’t have to.” It’s really that simple. I wouldn’t shoot a dog, I wouldn’t step on a spider, I wouldn’t tear a plant out of the ground, unless it served some real need. In just the same way, I wouldn’t cut a chicken’s throat, or shoot a cow in the head, just because I liked the taste. And never has doing so been less needful, when it’s as easy as picking up a block of tofu and putting it in your cart.