Turkish tourism materials refer to the country as a the world’s largest open-air museum, and it certainly feels that way. At the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the country has a long and rich history that is evident everywhere you look. Remnants of the Greek, Roman and Ottoman eras, as well as stone age remains, form layers under contemporary development and create a beautiful patchwork of styles.
Turkish cuisine is equally rich, using locally-produced and seasonal ingredients. At the vegan-friendly end of the spectrum, you have loads of lovely greens, fresh fruits (and fresh-pressed juices) and an endless variety of vegetable and bean-based meze. Meze are the perfect invention for those of us who don’t like to have to choose only one dish at a meal– instead, you can order a table full of little plates of different hot and cold appetizers.
I had a wonderful time trying out as many different meze as possible– I had dishes with eggplant/aubergine/brinjal, tomatoes and peppers, different kinds of beans (fava, garbanzo/chickpea, white beans, kidney beans and lentils), artichokes, green beans, potatoes, rice, bulgar and an abundance of greens.
With a little help from google translate, I managed to identify most of the many types of greens I tried. These included: spinach, collards, “lambs ears”, borage, purslane, chicory, watercress, kale and samphire (a member of the parsley family that grows on rocks near the sea, which was locally referred to as seaweed). Hats off to Doga Balik in Cihangir, Istanbul for it’s incredible offering of leafy green meze (in addition to its other vegan-friendly meze).
Another restaurant with an extremely tasty selection of vegan-friendly meze was Hunkar Lokantasi in Nisantasi. Hunkar is actually listed by the vegan society, and the chef kindly went through the menu with me to explain which items were available (e.g. in season) and which were vegan. The selection I ended up with included lentil balls, fava bean puree with dill, roasted red peppers, seasonal salad, bulgar with lentils and some olives. All of it was outstanding.
I also tried out some asure for dessert– when you ask anyone what’s in this traditional pudding, they’ll say, “everything” and that’s not far off. Mine had rice, bulgar, 2 kinds of beans, various dried fruits, nuts and spices. It’s not the prettiest dessert and has a slightly strange taste, but it grows on you as you eat it and I found it hard to stop despite feeling rather full. According to the legend, asure was invented by the animals on Noah’s ark, who pooled all the food they had to make a dish for all of them to share (à la stone soup).
While the city of Istanbul is huge and cosmopolitan, with restaurants ranging from Japanese to Italian, I preferred to stick with Turkish food for the most part, enjoying the wide range of fresh, locally-grown vegetables on offer.