How to be a vegan in Turkey

For anyone thinking of going to live and teach in Turkey, no one can argue that one of the perks of being there is its diverse cuisine. For you omnivores out there you’ll find that the Turks love their meat and restaurants tend to promote meat-heavy dishes. But despite what many Turks will tell you, I’ve found being vegan in Turkey pretty easy.  Once you know what to look for, staying vegan and staying healthy while living abroad will be stress-free and enjoyable. Even when it’s a bit of a challenge, be (politely) inquiring in restaurants and (positively) creative at home and the reward is always worth it.

Once you know what to look for, staying vegan and staying healthy while living abroad will be stress-free and enjoyable.

I was lucky to have my delightful Turkish friend and fellow vegan Elif to act as my gastronomic guide when I first arrived in Turkey. Elif has helped me gather a few tips on things to look out for.  Firstly, cooked food, including mercimek çorbası (lentil soup) and pilav (rice) commonly contain chicken stock and although margarine is regularly used as a butter substitute, much of the margarine in Turkey is not vegan. Whenever I eat out, I tend to avoid these two things, but don’t fear, there are delicious and naturally vegan dishes in abundance!

As a simple, healthy and cheap meal I have found çiğ köfte, pronounced chee kuf-the is a great choice and is a popular snack for Turks. In the past, this dish was made with raw meat (çiğ means raw) but health regulations have outlawed this. Nowadays, meat is replaced with ground walnut making çiğ köfte a spicy spread made of fine bulgur, tomatoes, and red pepper paste. Another option to look out for is gözleme which is a savory (eggless) Turkish crepe; just be sure to ask for your gözleme to be peynirsiz (pronounced pay-neer-seez), which means without cheese.

If you want to have a sit-down meal, search for an ev yemekleri (home cooking) restaurant. Turkish home cooking tends to be vegetarian and vegan-friendly and in most ev yemekleri restaurants you can expect to find things like mercimek köfte (lentil balls) patates salata (potato salad), kısır (Turkish tabbouleh), etsiz sarma (meatless stuffed grape or cabbage cabbage leaves), and etsiz dolma (stuffed peppers, zucchini or tomato). 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’s a safe bet to assume it’s vegan. But be warned, quite often staff will give you the answer they think you want rather than the facts!

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