It's more than just Veggie..
Turkey, the country famed for its kebabs and grilled meats is essentially a vegetarian country. In fact, most dishes in the Turkish cuisine begin with a vegetarian base, most are vegan and meat is only added as an afterthought. With a thriving agricultural industry and a staple of locally grown olives for oil, vegetarian foods in Turkey are fresh, cheap, healthy and clean. The cuisine relies of bold flavours and utilises a variety of spices and sauces in every dish, complemented with rich and bright tones, typically by topping the dish with yoğurt and/or lemon. Vegetarians travelling to, or living in Turkey, need not worry, vegetarian dishes are plentiful and extremely tasty!
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin, which the south and west of Turkey runs straight through. There are 85 million olive trees in Turkey, 76% are in the Aegean region, 14% are in the Mediterranean and 9.5% are in Marmara. Turkey is the 5th top producer of olive oil in the world behind Spain, Italy, Greece and Tunisia, producing 16.7% of the world’s olive oil.
Known in Turkey as ‘liquid gold’, olive oil is recognized being one of the healthiest fats to consume. Its properties fight inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease and is full of antioxidants. The juice is used for religious rituals, medicines, fuels, soap making and skin care. Men even wrestle in in, that is how important olive oil has become in Turkey! But ‘liquid gold’ is used most generously in food. The taste and quality are influenced by the quality of the soil, the weather, cultivation conditions, pressing technology and the harvest and storage conditions, meaning that olive oils in every region, city, town and garden, have unique aromas each year. Olive oil has become an indispensable part of Turkish cuisine.
The Turkish word ‘Zeytinyağlı’ (zay-tin-yah-luh) means with olive oil and there is a whole genre of Turkish cuisine based on this word and the are predominantly vegetarian; dishes of vegetables, cooked and spiced and then doused in olive oil. Here are some of the favorites to look our for….
(All listed below are vegan)
Zeytinyağlı Enginar - Artichoke filled with chopped vegetables
Zeytinyağlı Fasulye - Romano Beans cooked with tomato and onion
Zeytinyağlı Pırasa - leeks and carrots cooked with tomato and onion and lemon
Zeytinyağlı Barbunya - Pinto Beans with tomatoes, onion, garlic and carrots
Deniz Börülcesi - Samphire with olive oil and garlic (common in Aegean and Med regions)
Zeytinyağlı Bakla - Fava Bean Pods (broad beans) flavored with garlic and lemon
Imam Bayıldı - “The Priest Fainted” Eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes
Zeytinyağlı Kereviz - Celery cooked and flavored with lemon and orange juice
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day anywhere in the world, but particularly in Turkey, and vegetarians will not be disappointed. Turkish kahvalti (breakfast) is traditionally a platter of cheeses, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and bread, accompanied with honey (often locally cultivated), jams and butter with a dollop of yogurt, accompanied by çay (Turkish tea) and freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice. (Vegan without the butter, cheese and yoghurt).
If you’re looking for something a bit warmer, try Menemen, an egg casserole mixed with onion, tomatoes and green peppers. (Vegan)
If you need something to keep you going between meals, snacks and street food are plentiful, especially in the larger cities like Istanbul and Izmir. Feast yourselves on olives, dried fruits and nuts such as chestnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios and fresh fruits like cherries, all locally grown. Kumpir is an excellent street food, a baked potato with a filling of your choice, anything from olives and bulgur to cheese or corn. (Vegan options)
The famous Sigara Böreği, is an excellent choice, filo pastry filled with Turkish cheese and herbs or spinach. Simit, a circular bread encrusted with sesame seeds is also a popular choice, or try the traditional Turkish flatbread gözleme, which can be filled with sweet fillings such as chocolate spread or sugar and lemon, or savoury such as cheese or spinach.
Traditionally a selection of small dishes served to accompany drinks or as appetizers before a main dish, meze is a vegetarian’s heaven. Most of the dishes found on meze trays in Turkey are meat free and delicious, and pieced together, or on a mixed plate, an entire meal can be found from a few plates of these tasty dishes. Any of the Zeytinyağlı (olive oil) dishes mentioned above can be eaten as meze, or try some of these flavoursome alternatives!
(Mostly vegan, see exceptions)
Ezme - A spicy tomato and chilli dip
Cacık - A yogurt and garlic dip
Hummus - Mashed chickpeas or beans blended with oils, lemon juice and garlic
Kısır - Bulgur salad with pepper and tomato pastes, pepper flakes, onion, garlic herbs and pomegranate molasses
Şakşuka – Aubergine (and sometimes potatoes) sautéed with tomatoes.
Sarma – Vine leaves stuffed with rice and nuts - the filling can sometimes include meat so ask first
Dolma - Vegetable stuffed vines leaves, with tomato, pepper, onion, eggplant and garlic
Mercimek Köftesi – Spiced red lentil and bulgur balls, served at room temperature on lettuce
Mücver – Courgette fritters (not vegan)
Nohut - Chickpeas
Salads are easy to come by in Turkey and you can find a huge range of different versions to try. Green salads are made with leaves from nettles, radish leaves, lettuce and chicory, but will include vegetables like asparagus and will be mixed with onions and peppers. Beetroot is boiled into a salad and flavored with vinegar, garlic and salt. Bulgur salads are a filling choice as are eggplant salads which have a smoky taste due to the eggplant being cooked directly on a fire.
The most popular salad in Turkey is the Çoban Salatası, finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers with long green peppers and parsley, of course drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. (Vegan)
You can find a vegetable kebab in most restaurants in Turkey, or try the Çiğ köfte, just be careful you don’t end up with the traditional version, which is made of raw meat! Due to health concerns, unless you are eating in a traditional village in Turkey, you will find that Çiğ köfte is now a mixture of spicy pepper paste, tomatoes, and bulgur.
Aside from vegetarian kebabs, there are plenty of meat free dishes on lokantası (restaurant) menus across Turkey and here are some favorites…
Mantı - Traditional Anatolian ravioli-like dumplings topped with a yogurt and spicy tomato sauce - the filling is usually meat but you can find versions made with spinach and cheese
Güveç - A casserole cooked in an earthenware dish - vegetarian versions including mixed vegetables, aubergine and potato, bean, and okra (Vegan)
Peruhi - Vegetarian Turkish pasta, stuffed with a bit of cheese and mint, and cooked with yoghurt, milk and olive oil
Çorba - Soups including mercimek çorbası, a thick lentil soup, ezogelin çorbası, made of red lentils and bulgur and domates çorbası, tomato soup (Vegan)
Vegetarian Restaurant Recommendations
Van Kahvaltı Evi - (Nişantaşı and Cihangir) – The place to go for a Turkish breakfast.
Cafe Privato (Galata) – Excellent Turkish breakfast plates with a view of the Galata Tower. Their menu includes some unusual extras like muhammara (hot pepper dip), grilled halloumi, and pancakes.
Ciya Sofrasi (Kadıköy) - Wildly popular and often referred to as "the best restaurant in Istanbul." They offer a huge selection of vegetarian mezes and a vegetarian kebab.This isn't a fancy place and most things are served buffet style, but the food is good and will keep you coming back for more.
Bodrum Manti Cafe (Arnavutköy) - This place only serves manti. They have a vegetarian version called temel feriye manti with spinach and cheese that is absolutely delicious.
Parsifal (Beyoğlu) - A small, comfortable spot with wooden tables and chairs, random frames decorating the walls and a laid-back vibe. The menu is 100 percent vegetarian, the prices are very reasonable and you can enjoy a beer or glass of wine with your meal.
Ocak - A friendly, family-run place with a menu that changes daily. The first half of the menu is vegetarian with rice stuffed peppers, aubergine, green lentils, and manti They also have amazing views from the terrace of fairy chimneys glowing in the pre-sunset light.
Top Deck - Another small family-run place, this time in a cave with both floor and table seating. It’s very popular so book in advance. There are a few main courses that change every day, including a vegetarian option, but the meze platters are best.
Oztoklu - A family run restaurant tucked away next to a market in a courtyard next to the fish market with excellent food. If you happen to be pescatarian, you can choose your fish fresh from the fish market, but vegetarian options are plentiful.
Mozaik Bahce Restaurant - Vegetarian options are available here and the menu labels label them clearly with photographs.
The Demeter Bar and Restaurant - This place has a separate category for vegetarian dishes in its menu and you can find veggie pizzas and spaghetti too.
Kısmet Lokantası - Serves vegetarian, organically grown food with an array of olive oil dishes and pide.
Vejeteryen Restaurant - This restaurant has a vegetarian menu and an ecological shop and library. They hold seminars and talks on ecological cultivation mentions and workshops on vegetarianism and alternative medicine!
While vegetarianism is widely known of in Turkey, vegans may find a more difficult time. It is also recommended that vegetarians make it clear that no meat is essential, sometimes soups and rice can be boiled in meat stock for flavor, so it is worth pointing out that this is not acceptable. Knowing some useful phrases in Turkish will definitely help so that you don’t get caught out!
Hiç et yemem (heech eht yeh-mehm) - "I eat no meat at all”
Vejeteryen (veh-zheh-tehr-yehn) - “Vegetarian”
Ben veganım (ben veg-ah-num) - “I am vegan”
Et yemiyorum (eht yem-ee-your-um) - “I do not eat meat”
Balık yemiyorum (bahh-luk yem-ee-your-um) - “I do not eat fish”
Hayvansal hiçbir şey yemiyorum (hi-van-sal beech-beer shey yem-ee-your-um) - “I do not eat anything that comes from an animal”