Friday, January 10, 2014

Plant-Powered Dining Guide to Istanbul

By: Belkis E. Boyacigiller

Let’s start off by saying it’s easy eating green in Istanbul. Not that every menu has a vegan or vegetarian option readily available, but if you know what’s commonly available at certain establishments you’ll usually be able to find something to stuff your stomach or at the very least stave off hunger for a few hours. 

This first installment focuses on typical Istanbul dining experiences you may come across during your time here. The second installment features some of our favorite restaurants. The third installment features our favorite snacks. Please leave any feedback or additional suggestions you may have in the comments section.

Fish in Istanbul is as much a cultural experience as it is a culinary one. When Turks go to a “Balikci” they typically do it over a few hours, enjoying tapas like cold & warm dishes first, then just plain fish fried if small, grilled if large, then if you still have room fresh fruit or dessert. The one constant is the translucent anise flavored liquor, Raki, which is sipped throughout the meal (and is perfectly vegetarian)! 

Here are some options you may typically encounter in a Fish Restaurant in Istanbul:  

Cold Mezes: On a tray loaded with tiny dishes or a refrigerated display case you will find most, if not all, of the cold appetizers available. Ask to see the dishes prior to placing your order as offerings will change depending on the season. 

Photo Courtesy of @YCARDTR on Instagram at Cunda Balik, Bostanci

Beyaz Peynir: Triangular tranche of Feta Cheese
Kavun: Slice of Honeydew melon
Patlican Salatasi: Smoked Aubergine with garlic and olive oil; the Turkish version of Baba Ghanoush.
Fava: Thick broad bean spread typically topped with minced red onion and dill weed.
Pilaki: Canellini Beans served in a cold olive-oil based tomato sauce
Semizotu: Garlic yogurt with Purslane or lamb’s lettuce, a green typically called Mâche in France. It’s worth a try to see if your waiter can serve it just with lemon and olive oil if you are. 
Deniz Borulcesi: This dish literally translates to sea beans but is more commonly referred to as marsh samphire or glasswort. These delicate green vegetables are boiled then drizzled with olive oil, garlic and lemon. 
Kabak Cicegi Dolmasi: Zucchini blossoms stuffed with spiced white rice, currants and pine nuts. 
Kozlenmis Kirmizi Biber: Roasted Red pepper with Garlic 
Cibez Otu: Aegean green covered with olive oil and garlic, typical of Ayvalik. 

Hot Mezes: 
There are some vegetarian options in this category, but sadly no vegan options I can think of that are commonly found. 
Sigara Boregi: Phyllo dough stuffed with feta cheese, rolled into a cigar shape and then fried immediately before serving. 

Tomato Salad @Sur Balik Photo cropped via @NerdeYesek
Coban Salatasi: This is similar to a greek salad but the ingredients (cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, long green peppers) are diced much smaller than in a typical greek salad. Also, the Turkish version does not have feta cheese in it—a plus for vegan eaters. 
Domates Salatasi: A tomato salad that you must order if you are in Turkey in the tomato months of mid-June through mid-September as the tomatoes are juicy and fragrant at this time of year and so this salad shines. The sliced tomatoes are marinated in a soy sauce and then served with copious amounts of sliced red onion and olive oil. 
Bahce/Mevsim Salatasi: Garden/seasonal salad at fish and meat restaurants typically consists of pickled red cabbage, cucumbers, canned corn kernels (most likely not gmo-free) and shaved carrots served on a bed of green lettuce and arugula. Not the most Turkish experience you are going to get, but vegan nonetheless. 
Roka Domates: Arugula and tomato salad all chopped up. If you love bitter arugula with a guaranteed bite then you must enjoy arugula when you are in Turkey, it’s the best! Enjoy with lemon, olive oil and a bit of “Nar Eksisi”, sour pomegranate syrup, on top!
Yem Yesil Salata: Literally translates to very green salad. Some places you can ask for them to put all the greens in a salad so that in addition to arugula, iceberg, and romaine you may also have green onions, parsley and dill weed in there as well, for a phytochemical packed punch with your lunch. 

*** My advice to someone eating a Vegan diet is to order the tomato salad, a green salad and the aubergine, the fava and the deniz borulcesi for a satisfying dinner at a fish restaurant. 

If you are traveling with a bunch of omnivores or taken out to dinner by a Turkish friend who isn’t aware of your dietary restrictions you may very well find yourself at a “Kebapci”, which literally translates to “the kebab place”. There are some establishments that feature many salads and cold dishes you can make a meal out of, but don’t expect to find any tofu or mushroom kebabs here just yet. I look forward to the day that we can see a separate grill for Portobello and Tofu kebabs, but sadly that day is not yet in sight in Istanbul, though I believe such options will be on menus in coming years. For now, here are some of my recommendations for eating at a place not meant to cater to clientele like us! 

Photo via @BEBinthekitch on Instagram
Gavurdag Salatasi: This is a favorite of mine and I highly recommend you try it in summer when tomatoes are ripe. The salad is chopped tomatoes, walnuts, yellow/red onions, parsley, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, and red pepper flakes. Walnuts provide protein and good omega-3 fats, so this is definitely a meal in and of itself. 
Zeytin Salatasi: This is not normally found at every restaurant, but some such as the Gunaydin chain feature this on their menus. It is basically chopped green olives with parsley, tomatoes, onions and walnuts. 
Acili Ezme: A spicy tomato paste with onions and peppers that you can spread on pita bread. 
Nar Eksili Patlican Sogurme: Oven blistered eggplant served in a pomegranate molasses and olive oil sauce.
Hummus: Ahhhhh humus, isn’t it every plant-based eater’s lifesaver on a menu? Some kebab establishments have hummus on their menus, but make sure it is vegan because sometimes the hummus is served hot and with pastrami and butter on top. Ick!
Pita Bread: Make sure to check and see if they can make you a pita bread without egg wash on the top, some establishments do this to add glossiness to their pitas as well as to hold in place the Nigella seeds. 
Pilav: Check and see if the rice is cooked with butter. If so, see if the kitchen can make you steamed rice as a replacement. 
Begendi: If you are vegetarian, aren’t gluten-free and eat dairy then you may enjoy eating this smoky eggplant puree that typically has some flour, butter and kasseri cheese melted into it. 
Guvecte Mantar: Button mushrooms in a hot tomato and green pepper broth topped with melted cheese, can be an option for vegetarians. 
Haydari: Greek yogurt lovers, this appetizer’s for you. Thick yogurt with dried mint and garlic. There is also the purslane version mentioned in the fish section you may find at a kebapci. 
Enginar: An artichoke heart cooked in olive oil served with a small potpourri of carrots, potatoes and peas topped with dillweed. 
Soslu Patlican: Eggplant cubed, fried and tossed in a tomato sauce. 
Salads: The salads mentioned in the Balikci section should more or less be the salads you can get at the Kebapci. 
Izgara Sebze Tabagi: Grilled vegetable plate. I don’t see any reason why you would have a problem ordering this at a Kebabci, most white-tablecloth establishments should be able to execute this order. Making sure they don’t grill it on the meat grill is a different story…if worried, stick to the cold veggies. 

Photo via @SehirFirsati
The best breakfast/hangover food is having a hot and crusty tost from your neighborhood tostcu (toast shop). Vegetarians can choose one with Kasar Peyniri (Kasseri Cheese), Beyaz Peynir (Feta Cheese), Krem Peynir (cream cheese) or a mix of all three. Then you can add sliced tomato, potato salad (Amerikan Salatasi), pickles, french fries, zeytin ezmesi (olive tapenade), etc. etc and wash it down with a salty Ayran--a yogurt drink typical of Turkey. For vegans, i can recommend a tost with olive tapenade, oregano and tomatoes but I can’t be positive that the toast machine won’t have some residue butter lingering on its surface. Some places even serve toasts with nutella and banana…not vegan, but worth checking out if you have a sweettooth. Perhaps the most vegan thing at a “tostcu” is one of the fresh squeezed juices such as Nar (Pomegranate), Havuc (Carrot), Greyfrut (Grapefruit) or Portakal (Orange). You can even order a mix of the aforementioned for your own super juice! Drink immediately to extract maximum micronutrient benefit. I must say that since being dairy-free I don’t find it enjoyable to order from a tostcu, so if you are vegan this is not really a recommendation from me, but more of an explanation on a popular dining option. 

Asure @Bolulu Hasan Usta
If you have a sweet tooth and happen to go to a pudding shop you may be able to enjoy a dessert called “Asure”. This is one of the most popular vegan desserts in Turkish cuisine. I love asure because it is a meal in and of itself and has some of my favorite ingredients in it such as chickpeas, rice, navy beans, pomegranate seeds, dried apricots, figs, chestnuts, currants, golden raisins, orange peel, rose water, sugar, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, walnuts and sesame seeds. Do you need anymore reasons to try it? How about this: It is a holy dessert enjoyed by those who survived Noah’s Ark. If you are vegetarian you can try almost everything at the Muhallebici but stay clear of the Tavuk Gogusu—it has thin strands of chicken breast in it!

Soup is such a wonderful dish but sadly vegans cannot really confidently enjoy a lentil soup nor a tomato soup at a Corbaci without fearing it is made with chicken/meat stock. Most of the tomato soup in Istanbul is served with a bit of Kasseri cheese sprinkled on top and some of the tomato soups contain cream and butter. 

Vejeteryan Pide at Citir Usta Photo via @Mekanist

At most pide—Turkish thick crust pizza not the thin “lahmacun” pizza topped with mincemeat--places there are a few vegetarian options such as spinach and feta, kasseri cheese and the vejeteryan which is prepared with yellow cheese, peppers, and tomatoes. For a vegan version, it’s worth a try to find out if the spinach has egg or butter in it. If not, perhaps they can make one pide for you with spinach, tomatoes, peppers and no egg wash. If not, ask for a plate of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives whatever veggies they have, some olive oil, red pepper flakes and pita bread and make your own vegan pide. 

That’s all for now…stay tuned for more updates including eating at "esnafs", some of our favorite istanbul restaurants, snack foods and more in part 2 and part 3! 


  1. This is awesome!!

  2. Wow, so thorough and so nicely written! Amazing job.