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vegetarian food in turkey
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Cig kofte in Istanbul

Cig kofte (crushed barley with tomato and spicy pepper)

Last week's post on the grilled meats of Turkey might have convinced you that Turkey's not the optimal place for us vegetarians.  You'd be wrong.  Though it can require a bit of creative thinking and negotiating with waiters, Turkey's actually a great place for vegetarians and even vegans (a surprise in dairy-heavy Europe).

Is there vegetarian food in Turkey?

Though the Turks have a storied tradition of meat eating, there is also a long history toward vegetarianism in this region.  Before the Turkmen occupied present-day Turkey, the Greeks and Romans ruled over this space.  Many famous and influential ancent Greeks and Romans were vegetarians: Pythagoras, the mathematician; Socrates, the philosopher (as described in Plato's The Republic); Zeno, the founder of Stoicism; Epicurus, the philosopher, and founder of the school of Epicureanism; Seneca, Caligula's minister; and Plutarch, the philosopher.  (source)

Of these men, Pythagoras was the first and most famous advocate of vegetarianism.  Pythagoras was born off the coast of Turkey, in Samos, today one of the Greek islands, separated from mainland Turkey by only a one mile strait.  He traveled extensively in his youth and ultimately founded Pythagorean schools in Italy, where his disciples lived according to Pythagoras's principles, part of which required vegetarianism.  In Metamorphoses, Ovid presents Pythagoras impassionately arguing that in order for humans to metamorphose into a better and more harmonious species, we must become more humane and understand that human and animal lives are so intertwined as to be inseparable:

      Everything changes; nothing dies; the soul roams to and fro, now here, now there, and takes what frame it will, passing from beast to man, from our own form to beast and never dies...Therefore lest appetite and greed destroy the bonds of love and duty, heed my message! Abstain! Never by slaughter dispossess souls that are kin and nourish blood with blood!

Seaweed

Turkish cheeses
Dried vegetables


Besides these philosophical principles which led many ancient Greeks and Romans to abstain from meat, meat was also expensive for the average working man.  Vegetables, grains, dairy, and seafood were cheap and easily renewable resources.  In Lysistrata, Aristophanes wrote that a piglet costs three drachma, or three day's salary for a public servant. 

Interestingly, gladiators also were vegetarians, not for poverty or for animal rights reasons, but because they realized that carb bulking would best serve them in the arena.  An archaeological excavation of a gladiator graveyard near Ephesus, Turkey, revealed that gladiators had huge layers of subcutaneous fat to help cushion injuries and shield nerves and blood vessels from fatal injuries.  Bulking up on carbs via barley and legumes meant that the gladiators needed extra calcium, which they took in the form of charred wood or bone ash, both which are rich in calcium.

As time went on and the Turks and Ottomans took hold of Turkey, vegetarianism grew less, especially because eating meat is an essential part of Islamic culture.  However, Francis Bacon noted in the 16th century, when discussing animal rights in the Advancement of Learning: "[U]nder the old laws, there were numerous precepts (not merely ceremonial) enjoining mercy [toward animals] - for example, the not eating of flesh with the blood, &c. So, also, the sects of the Essenes and Pythagoreans totally abstained from flesh, as they do also to this day, with an inviolate religion, in some parts of the empire of the Mogul [Hindustan]. Nay, the Turks, though a savage nation, both in their descent and discipline, give alms to the dumb animals, and suffer them not to be tortured." (source)

Because of the long Islamic and Ottoman rule, vegetarianism as a concept is not well-understood in modern-day Turkey.  But, the ancient Greek and Roman history has ensured that certain vegetarian staples live on, such as the eating of mostly vegetarian mezes and vegetables to be served alongside any meat dishes.

What can a vegetarian eat in Turkey?

For breakfast

Simit Simit
Simit

Doughy bagel-like simit topped with sesame seeds and found everywhere.  Perfect on the run, as a snack, or dipped in some tahini. (Vegan)

Menemen

Menemen

Menemen, that is, scrambled eggs Turkish style with plenty of tomatoes and peppers thrown in.

Turkish breakfast

 Turkish kahvalti, or Turkish breakfast, which consists of a huge platter of cheeses, vegetables, olives, pastries, jam, kaymak (clotted cream), and bread.

For lunch

Turkish pide

Turkish pide with a thick doughy base and cheese and vegetables within, similar to a thick flat-bread pizza.

Cig kofte

Cig kofte, one of the best snacks for the vegetarian traveler to Istanbul, is a mixture of spicy pepper paste, tomatoes, and bulgur.  Traditionally, cig kofte is made with ground meat but, due to sanitation reasons, the vast majority of cig kofte sold on street stalls is vegetarian and you can buy it either wrapped in lettuce or on a flour wrap with spicy sauce or without.  Love this dish!  (Vegan)

Borek and baklava

Borek is the savory cousin of baklava, made by sandwiching white cheese and vegetables between layers of phyllo dough.

 Gozleme

Gozleme is a flatbread similar to Indian chapati or Mexican flour tortillas with spinach, cheese, or other vegetables within.  (Can be made vegan.)

For dinner

Ordering mezes

Ordering mezes

Ordering mezes

Ordering mezes

Even the strictest vegan can make a meal out of Turkish mezes.  If the word salad conjures up a plate of insipid iceberg lettuce with a few stray tomatoes thrown in, then just wait until you sit down at a Turkish restaurant.  No meal begins at a Turkish restaurant without a selection of mezes, or small plates.  The cold mezes are almost always vegetarian (occasionally, they might have seafood) and some of the hot mezes will be vegetarian, as well.  Usually, the mezes will be brought to you on a tray or rolled cart or you will go to a buffet to select them, so it's easy to point and choose exactly what you want.  Below, I've given a sampling of some popular vegetarian mezes (many vegan options):

Dolma Turkish mezes
Rice stuffed dolma Tzatzikk with dill and eggplant with yogurt (my very favorite)
Olives Hummus
Turkish olives in oil with spices Turkish hummus (not a fan of this version of hummus because it is very thick)
Seaweed Smoked eggplant meze
Boiled seaweed  Smoked eggplant with cheese
Bulgur salad Cheese stuffed peppers
Bulgur salad Peppers with cheese
Purslane with yogurt Squash blossoms
Purslane and yogurt Stuffed squash blossoms
 

And many, many more.  Every restaurant will sell huge varieties of mezes and many are seasonal so you will be able to try different mezes at different times of the year. 

Manti

Making manti by hand Manti

Manti, a traditional Anatolian dumpling dish, topped with sour yogurt and a spicy pepper oil, is usually made with a meat filling but there are a few places that serve a delicious vegetarian spinach and cheese version.  Though it sounds a bit odd, manti is one of our favorite Turkish eats and a must-eat if you are in the region.

And, the list goes on.  These are just a sampling of some of my favorite vegetarian meals in Turkey but there are many, many options for the vegetarian.  Don't be worried about finding good food because Turkey has a reputation of being a meat-eater's paradise.  Turkey, as we discovered, is simply a food-lover's paradise, regardless of dietary restrictions.

A few spots with great vegetarian options in Istanbul:

Vegetarian mezes in Turkey

Stuffed artichoke
Vegetarian kebab at Ciya Sofrasi Bread
Sweet squash with tahini Desserts at Ciya Sofrasi

 Meals at Ciya Sofrasi

Ciya Sofrasi is wildly popular and often referred to as "the best restaurant in Istanbul."  They offer a huge selection of vegetarian mezes, entrees (even a vegetarian kebab), and some of the most interesting desserts in town, including a sugared eggplant that is absolutely delicious (sounds terrible, I know, but it's amazing!).  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.  There are three related restaurants - sofrasi which is the buffet and best at lunch time is the only one I've seen where you can get the artichokes; and two kebap places where you can get their mezes and also kebabs.  The prices are a bit higher here than at the average kebap restaurant.  It's in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul, very close to the Kadikoy ferry terminal.

Bodrum Manti Cafe

Bodrum Manti Cafe

Bodrum Manti Cafe is out of the main tourist circuits but well worth finding.  They serve only manti --- fried or boiled, whole wheat or white, with a generous serving of sour garlic yogurt, and spicy red pepper oil.  This is the manti that we kept dreaming about for the rest of the time we were in Turkey because no other manti matched the quality at Bodrum Manti.  And, they have a vegetarian version called temel feriye manti with spinach and cheese that is absolutely delicious.  Cheap and solid comfort food; if we lived in Istanbul, we would be here every other week.

Lale pudding shop

Vegetarian imam biyaldi

Lale Pudding Shop is a tourist restaurant located smack across the street from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, that was once the meeting point of the hippies roaming from Europe to Asia.  Surprisingly, even today, despite the fact that they've been featured in every guidebook possible and are located on one of the most touristy streets in the entire world, they still serve up some really good Turkish fare at reasonable prices.  It's also the only place we've found in Istanbul that serves a vegetarian imam biyaldi (stuffed eggplant), so for that reason alone, it's a great place to stop when wandering through Sultanahmet.

Other Resources for Vegetarian Travelers to Turkey:

07/10/2012 05:52
I'm not a vegetarian, but I absolutely love vegetarian food! All of this looks delicious and super interesting.
07/18/2012 10:24
Thanks Matthew! Turkey's a surprisingly great place for us veggie lovers.
07/10/2012 06:20
Awesome summary of vegetarian options! I loved the Gozleme and the mezes, especially the boiled seaweed. Incredible photography too!
Shtina's recent blog post: Istanbul Ice Cream Show
07/18/2012 09:42
Thanks Shtina!
07/10/2012 07:37
You take the most gorgeous food pics! I didn't know that were gladiators were veggies!!! I can't wait to say that to people when they look at me like I'm going to die from not eating meat.
Andi of My Beautiful Adventures's recent blog post: Hong Kong: Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (Part 2)
07/17/2012 16:11
Thank you, thank you! Turkey's an easy place to take great food pictures because the food is so good!
07/10/2012 09:24
Vegetables never looked so darn good before!
Pauline's recent blog post: Observations from the Orient
07/17/2012 16:07
Thanks Pauline!
07/10/2012 10:51
A very nice contrast to the variety of meat offerings in Turkey. Loved the tidbit about the gladiators!
Ryan at Travel and Graphs's recent blog post: Travel Guide to Losing Weight
07/17/2012 16:06
Thanks Ryan!
07/10/2012 23:47
Hey guys, thanks for the link. It is kumpir though, not lumpir. That is probably why you could not find it :)
07/17/2012 15:55
Thanks Natalie! I'll make that correction.
07/11/2012 09:14
This is a great post! My husband is not a vegetarian, but even he admits it's been fun discovering foods you might not have if you were to only stick to meat. Love the info about ancient vegetarians and gladiators - I'll use that one when confronted with the "oh, you can't be an athlete vegetarian" argument. Hah.

Also, those dried tomatoes and eggplant are so pretty - they look like leis! ;)
07/17/2012 15:45
Thank you wandergirl! I agree with you - the tomatoes and eggplant do look like leis. I thought they were SO pretty and took way too many pictures of them.
07/11/2012 10:26
As always gorgeous food photos! Only dish that surprised me on there was the boiled seaweed- would not have guessed that for a Turkish dish!
Vicky's recent blog post: Buying a Travel Laptop
07/17/2012 15:41
Thanks Vicky! We were very surprised with the seaweed, as well, but it was one of the most common mezes throughout Turkey.
07/13/2012 02:50
Veron
I was in Turkey a few years ago and absolutely enjoyed the food! I'm not a vegetarian but love veggie food, so of course I ate everything in sight! A big thanks for mentioning GOZLEME: I did not go a day without having it as a snack. Tried to make it back home...a no-no!!Mouthwatering pics, by the way!
07/17/2012 15:35
Thanks Veron! The best gozleme we had was actually made by our landlord's housekeeper. I want to try her method when he get back home!
07/18/2012 10:02
What a great post! Your pictures are fantastic. The yummy vegetarian food is seriously one of my favorite things about Turkey, and you did a great job showing all the delicious veggie options the country has to offer.
07/20/2012 05:06
Thanks so much Dani! We were really amazed by the quality and quantity of veggie cuisine in Turkey, especially because I didn't find a lot of information on it before we went to the country.
07/21/2012 12:45
The more I read about your trip to Turkey, the more I want to plan a visit myself. You had me at hot air balloon rides, but now I'm hooked at the prospect of all this delicious looking food! Do you know of a reliable source for recipes for any of these dishes? I recently moved in with a vegetarian friend and we are looking for more meals we can eat together. Thanks for your input!
07/22/2012 03:58
Ruth, The best source I know of Turkish recipes is Olga's website at Delicious Istanbul. We actually took her cooking class in Istanbul and it was awesome: http://theroadforks.com/worldtrip/turkey/delicious_istanbul_cooking_class

Here's the link to her blog: http://www.deliciousistanbul.com/blog/
07/25/2012 12:45
Yum! What a great looking variety. Turkey is looking better and better as a place to spend a year on my journey.
Jonathan Look, Jr.'s recent blog post: Orquídeas Moxviquil
08/05/2012 04:18
Jonathan, I've never heard anyone say that they disliked their time in Turkey. In fact, everyone says that it's one of their unexpected favorite destinations in the world and we felt the same way. It's not just the scenery and the food that makes it an incredible country --- the people are so welcoming and open that it's impossible not to enjoy yourself there!
08/07/2012 04:29
I've never eaten Turkey dishes. Manti looks cute and interesting to make. Most foods look weird yet delicious.
08/14/2012 05:04
I think Turkey is like vegetarian heaven!
08/18/2013 19:23
The vegetarian food looks amazing. Whenever I see this type of food I really want to make some dietary changes, its looks so good and prepared right is really delicious. Great post.
03/22/2014 09:31
We are loving all of the amazing Vegan food in Turkey!!!
Currently travelling around and we are in Heaven!! :)
05/14/2014 08:45
Great photos. I'm hungry now. Thanks for sharing.
07/14/2014 15:28
Thanks!

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