A vegetarian journey through meat-centric Turkish cuisine in Istanbul

Every time I went to Istanbul to visit my family, I stuffed my face with spicy köfte kebab and other meat dishes. One of my fondest culinary memories in Turkey happened when I was 11 and we were driving through the countryside en route to my grandfather’s old flour factory with all my extended family. We stopped to eat at a roadside restaurant where they…killed a chicken and served it to us.

I’ve since been told I have “vegetarian vibes” – am I just that crunchy? – and I’ve certainly tried and failed to be vegan. But on a recent trip back to Istanbul, I discovered a new trend: vegetarian versions of all my favorite Turkish dishes.

Veggie on the European side

My culinary adventure began as soon as I arrived. I dropped my things off at an Airbnb in Cihangir, a trendy neighborhood on the European side, the western half of this transcontinental city. An orange and white cat patrolled the street and stood guard atop a yellow cab. I strolled over to Urban Cafe, a bustling restaurant with tables set up in the pedestrian street, and spotted my mate Elif inside. I was starving after my 10 hour flight with Turkish Airlines from Chicago.

Elif ordered me a vegetarian köfte, with a creamy mixture of chickpeas replacing the meat, and a side of thick, crispy fries. While I was devouring it, my baba (“dad” in Turkish) called me. I told him I made it safely, and he and Elif agreed that they were happy that I was in Istanbul. After the meal, I ordered my first cay of the trip – Turkish tea which comes in a thin, transparent glass.

The next morning, I walked a few narrower streets until I spotted the Ottoman-era Kiliç Ali Paşa Mosque. From there, I walked up the busy Meclis-i Mebûsan street to Setup, just above the main road that runs along the Bosphorus Strait. The patio is covered in red tiles and the servers wear sleek black shirts.

For lunch with my artist friend Sena Başöz, I ordered the simit kahvalti (or breakfast simit; 75 lira or about $4), which came with a perfectly sliced ​​hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, sliced ​​avocado, black olives, grilled olives, fort and creamy ezine cheese, slices of simit (the Turkish bagel covered in sesame seeds) and cay.

“I remember you from the last time,” the waiter told me in Turkish. “You came here.”

“And we sat at the same table,” I said, picking the avocado. It had been two and a half years since I was in Istanbul. The waiter dropped two small plates of gingerbread cookies on the table. Merry Christmas Istanbul style.

Vegan on the Asian side

I caught the ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul. For dinner at Çinili Taş Firin Kadiköy, Elif and I sat at small wooden tables on the terrace and devoured vegan lahmacun (a usually meaty “Turkish pizza”) and vegan Kuşbaşili pide, a normally coated flatbread. of meat. This time there was fake ground meat, red and green peppers, vegan rice yogurt and chili paste.

“Would you like an ayran?” Elif asked me, referring to the salty yogurt drink I love. “Don’t get the one that comes in an open container – I don’t trust it.”

After dinner, we rushed to Antepli Beraat, where I ordered my new favorite Turkish dessert: baklava soğuk (or cold). Even my friends in Istanbul hadn’t heard of it, which made me feel like a pioneer. The cold version of the dough is filled with ground pistachios, baklava dough sheets, and sugar, but with a bottom layer of milk added and cold freshness.

The next day, I passed by Küff Yeldeğirmeni, where Elif works as a barista/manager. Before she started her shift, we devoured the classic Turkish omelette peynirli menemen (with cheese) and the sade bişi, which looks like a puffy, plain donut, with a dip made from tahini and molasses .

“You like all great Turkish food, Kısmet,” Elif told me in Turkish, using my middle name, which roughly translates to “good luck.” I shrugged playfully and winked at him. I am half Turkish, after all.

That evening we went diehard vegan, stopping at Rulo Lezzetler, a cheap storefront with an awesome buffet and no meat anywhere. Elif ordered mucver balls (mixture of zucchini and vegetables) and falafel. I tried the ‘vegan ayran’, which seemed odd as ayran is normally yoghurt based. It tasted like a watery cacik, a yoghurt and cucumber side dish.

sweet family history

The next day, Elif and I returned to the European side to find the building where my baba lived as a child before immigrating to the United States. The four-story beige building in upscale Nişantaşi is now a bank, but I managed to reach the fourth floor and peer out the silver windows, imagining what it might have seen.

Elif and I strolled down the street for a sweet treat and ended up at Saray Muhallebicisi, where she ordered firin sütlaç, a small bowl of classic Turkish rice pudding with the top burnt. I had kazandabi, otherwise known as “Turkish burnt milk pudding”, shaped into a gooey roll of sweetness.

We took a taxi to Sis & Bros Café & Sarküteri to meet up with my artist friend Sevil Tunaboylu. As we were drinking cay and waiting for food, a friendly orange cat jumped into my lap. “He’s never like that with customers,” one of the employees tells us in Turkish.

Sevil dug into a sumptuous roast beef sandwich. I ordered a vegetarian version which ended up being soggy and small which made me wonder if I had made the right choice to go vegetarian after all. But for now, I was committed to exploring the many meatless possibilities Istanbul presented, one meal at a time.

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