Leyla Yvonne Ergil
ISTANBUL: While Turkish cuisine is admittedly famed for its lavish kebabs and syrupy baklava oozing in butter, there are a surprisingly wide variety of Turkish staple dishes that are both delicious and decidedly vegan!
Turkish cuisine is famous for a lot of reasons but especially its diversity, due very much impart to this being a country that is surrounded by seas and diverse geographical regions housing multiple cultures. While some characteristic Turkish meat dishes tend to have taken the forefront, especially in touristic regions, in between you will see that there are actually a vast number of Turkish culinary categories and restaurants that cater to them that offer superior vegan options for dining.
Check out this overflowing list of scrumptious Turkish classics that are vegan!
Raw meat to vegan treat, çiğ köfte
It’s true that çiğ köfte is actually the name of a dish prepared with ground meat and spices and kneaded raw until the meat cooks in the process. In essence, the original çiğ köfte consisted of raw meat, bulgur, tomato and pepper paste onions, garlic, parsley, mint and spices such as chili flakes and cumin. In 2004, the sale of çiğ köfte as a raw meat patty was prohibited, and the Turks came up with a clever twist, which made this lesser-known specialty actually boom with çiğ köfte chains opening up in nearly every city and town in Turkey.
So, Yes! the çiğ köfte shops and stalls are actually serving up entirely vegan spiced bulgur patties that are either prepared in a wrap (in which the flatbread is also vegan) or eaten in a lettuce leaf cup with sliced pickles, tomatoes and a drizzle of lemon over the top. Most çiğ köfte shops are open late and will deliver. Çiğ köfte is also sold in wraps and in single-serving packages at most supermarkets.
Meze, vegetarian and vegan
Turkey’s culinary specialty of mezes, which are appetizer-sized plates of various salads and dips, is actually vegetarian by nature. While fish restaurants offer an additional array of seafood starters, for the most part, mezes consist of seasonal vegetables and greens prepared in either olive oil and lemon, a tomato-based sauce or are bean-based or yogurt. Obviously, the latter are not vegan.
Yet, most mezes actually are, and they are extremely rich, fulfilling and nutritious to boot. To list off a few of the classics, there is the salsa-esque acili ezme, there are roasted and smoked eggplant salads, bean dishes such as black-eyed pea salad and fava and then in the Aegean region especially, a variety of fresh greens and even glasswort, in Turkish deniz börulcesi. These are generally tossed in olive oil and garlic and doused with lemon juice. But there is a warm starter that can occasionally be ordered, which consists of a huge pile of wild greens that are sauteed with oil and doused in a tomato sauce.
A salad that can be a go-to in most classic Turkish restaurants is also both nutritious and delicious and definitely vegan and that is the gavurdağı salad and generally consists of finely chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses or seeds.
Pancake? We say Gözleme!
It has always been mind-boggling for me to see the Turkish stuffed, folded over and grilled flatbread of gözleme being translated into English as “pancake” because it is anything but! Gözleme is admittedly everywhere, and it is ever so practical and filling and you can choose from a variety of fillings they are stuffed with to boot! Almost every gözleme shop will have a variation stuffed with either potato or fresh greens (just make sure to ask for it without the cheese). The flatbread itself is generally prepared from a water-based dough and vegetable oil is used to grill the bread, but always double-check to make sure.
Turkish vegan food at its finest
Tucked away in a corner of nearly every town and neighborhood in Turkey will be an “ev yemeği” restaurant, which in English means “home cooking” restaurant, serving up a wealth of vegan bean and vegetable stews and bulgur and rice dishes. Many of the larger-scale versions of these restaurants operate cafeteria-style and you pick and choose from the cauldrons of dishes presented in a glass case in an open kitchen. Of these dishes, most are completely vegan, but it is always good to check to stay on the safe side.
The most popular traditional vegan stews are the tomato-based haricot bean dish “kuru fasulye,” “nohut” is the chickpea version and green beans, or “taze fasulye” are all comfort-food classics. There is also a spinach stew with rice and tomatoes that is a favorite. Meanwhile, some rice and nearly all bulgur dishes will also be vegan, just make sure to ask whether they have used butter (tereyağ) or broth (et suyu) in the cooking process.
It’s a wrap, dolma
Last, but certainly not least is “dolma,” which in Turkish literally means “stuffed.” The name dolma is thus understandably applied to a number of stuffed Turkish delicacies ranging from stuffed grape leaves to stuffed peppers, eggplants and even cabbage and chard. Most of these dolmas come in meat and vegan variations, with the latter variation being much more widely available. Thus, dolmas make for an excellent vegan snack or meal depending on which type you can get your hands on!
Luckily, dolma is actually widely available in markets, charcuteries and occasionally at home cooking restaurants. A great snack to take on the go, grape leaves wrapped around a rice stuffing spiced with currants are divine, and the vegan variety is regularly in the refrigerated section of supermarkets.