Istanbul: Wooing vegetarians

Punita Malhotra


It is a lesser-known secret that intrepid travellers are stumbling upon. Istanbul offers so much more than kebabs and shawarma. Bread, lentils, vegetables and of course, all the heavenly deserts your heart desires. Here’s a bite-by-bite countdown to a complete culinary expedition in Istanbul.

Breaking bread

Pide, a boat-shaped, sauce-free pizza-lookalike, served with cheese and a variety of toppings, often vegetarian, makes a great casual meal. As does Lahmacun, Turkish pizza, which scores high with its thinner, crispier base, eaten rolled up. Vegetarian toppings sometimes replace the more common spicy ground meat. Other breads locals love to include; the iconic bagel-like, sesame-sprinkled snack called Simit and Açma, designed to be a fluffier brioche-bun. Both can be picked off the streets from old-world red carts to nibble on along breezy walks. Another popular option to sample is the Gozeleme (‘pancake’). Resembling a quesadilla or Indian parantha, its thinly hand-rolled dough is stuffed with cheese, spinach or potato and cooked over a griddle to be enjoyed sizzling hot. Of course, you can’t discount the importance of the many drool-worthy salad-filled pitas or the chewy roti-like nans accompanying kebab platters.

Traditional simit

Photographer: Maria Studio

Loving lentils

Çorba or Turkish soups are available in multiple options at almost every Turkish restaurant. The best vegetarian versions are Merçimek Çorbası and Ezogelin, both different types of lentil soups made with different coloured lentils. Light, yet filling, a large steaming bowl, loaded with protein and nutrition is the perfect start to any meal, sometimes even fulfilment in itself. 

Mercimek corbasi, Turkish cuisine

Photographer: Bonchan

Çiğ köfte charms

Much like the more commonly known falafel, this one too is complete as a low-cost, quick veggie-friendly meal. Pronounced ‘chee kurff-tay’, these spicy balls are made of bulgur, onion, pepper and tomato pastes, spices and herbs, and are usually sold as takeaway in a lettuce leaf or dürüm (wrap of thin lavash bread). You can even find them on meze menus of sit-down restaurants throughout the city.

Çiğ köfte

Photographer: Alp Aksoy

Mouth-watering meze

Turkish cuisine is incomplete without its signature style meze. Those small, shareable appetiser plates, served with fresh bread before a main course are the perfect option to whet your appetite. Abundant quantities often give them place of preference as a full meal. Tempting varieties include Ezme (chilli tomato paste), Patlıcan Ezmesi (grilled eggplants with yoghurt), Haydari (mint yoghurt dip), Muhammara (spicy pepper and walnut dip), in addition to more well-known chick-pea based hummus. A meze that salad-grain fans will relish is Kısır; bulgur salad flavoured with tomato paste, pepper flakes, onion, garlic, pomegranate molasses, and herbs.

Turkish meze platter

Photographer: Zarzamora

Craving Kuru fasulye

Only an animated chat with a local will throw up the name of a favourite dish and everyday staple that doesn’t figure in regular Turkish recipe lists. This Black Sea speciality, hailing from Turkey’s northern-most region is a simple white-bean stew cooked in a soupy tomato gravy with sliced chillies and onions, spooned and doused over rice. The resemblance to the Indian Rajma Chawal is not purely coincidental. In a drier version, tossed with olive oil, vinegar, sliced onions, parsley, and chopped egg, it makes a refreshing salad called Piyaz. It is even pureed and eaten as a meze. Great fasulye is only found at a specialist traditional eatery. Pronounced Koo-roo fah-sool-ya.

Turkish kuru fasulye

Photographer: Alp Aksoy

Doling out dolma

The most versatile and innovative of all Turkish vegetarian dishes would have to be Dolma or stuffed vegetables. Usually available in a vine leaf, bell pepper, eggplant, or zucchini varieties, these come on your plate stuffed with rice, currants and spices. The eggplant version has a fascinating name too…İmam Bayıldı (the imam fainted). You can relish Dolma as a stand-alone or accompaniment to fresh rice or bulgur. Plump, colourful, comforting, with savoury, sweet, and sour flavours packed inside each bundle.

Dolma - vegetable stuffed grape vine

Photographer: Comeirrez

Sublimely sweet

Craziest of queues plus most baffling of decisions lie in store for you in every sweet shop of Istanbul. Dessert dreams translate into helvas (wheat flour, semolina and sugar stirred over low heat till amber in colour). Two types to line up for include the tahini halva and the paper halva (crisp rice paper eaters sandwiched together with toffee-like candy). A local favourite gracing traditional menus is Sütlaç, a rice pudding made with rice, sugar, rice flour and milk, often baked for a dark crispy skin and plated with a sprinkle of nuts and cinnamon. Those fond of milk puddings can order Muhallebi, a thick pudding flavoured with mastic (resin obtained from the mastic tree), usually topped with cinnamon and served cold or Kazandibi (thick pudding with a slightly burnt caramel top). Of course, there’s the quintessential Turkish Delight in flavours ranging from lemon, rose, bitter orange, to pistachio, coconut, mint, peach, and apricot. To be savoured with bitter black Turkish coffee for a stark contrast. And to peak sweet perfection, there are endless confusion-laden choices of sherbet sweets like baklava. Scented with rose water, citrus, jasmine, cherries, saffron, and spices. Drenched in fragrant syrup or topped with luscious cream. 

Coffee, Baklava and Turkish Delight

Photographer: Gulsen Ozcan

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