Vegetarian in Turkey: a meat-free culinary guide
While vegetarianism has yet to take off in Turkey, there is plenty of choice for veges. And best of all, meat-free definitely doesn't equal boring in Turkey. Our guide to vegetarian eating gives you an overview of the vege dishes on offer - as well as a few helpful phrases you can employ to ensure your culinary experience in Turkey is meat-free and delicious.
A few tips to get you started.
- Turkish tourist areas are the best places to find vegetarian dishes. If you’re travelling into the heart of the country to small villages your choice will become limited.
- In foreigner-friendly areas many restaurants will have vegetarian dishes, and staff generally understand the word “vejeteryen”.
- Although most Turkish dishes have more veges than meat, a number of stews and pilafs might have meat stock or small amounts of meat to flavour. Clarify what a dish contains by asking “is there meat?” (see our language guide below) Or even better (since the cook might not consider the use of stock to be meat) “I don’t eat meat”.
The day’s most important meal is a vegetarian’s delight in Turkey. And if you’re vegetarian there are plenty of options.
Turkish breakfast plates - kahvalti - are actually served all day in a lot of places. You’ll receive bread, at least two kinds of cheese, cucumber, olives, tomatoes, butter and jam. You could also receive kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, yogurt and eggs. If you’re still able to walk after kahvalti you probably haven’t done it right.
Menemen - this scrambled egg dish is baked with tomato, onion, green pepper and seasoning. It sometimes comes as part of a kahvalti, or you can order it on its own.
Simit - this ring-shaped bread is Turkey’s answer to the bagel and can be found sold from street carts in every main centre. They’re cheap, tasty and filling and the ideal breakfast on the run.
Gozleme - this tasty fried treat is a bit like a quesadilla. The thin dough is filled with cheese, spinach and then fried. Great for breakfast, on its own or as part of a kahvalti.
The array of mezes on offer in even the smallest cafe is often dizzying. While many mezes are meat based there is bound to be a huge selection of vegetarian dishes to choose from. Vegetarian mezes will consist of eggplant and tomato-based dishes, rice, beans. Here are a few to look out for:
- Ezme: this spicy tomato and chilli dip goes well with bread and yogurt.
- Cacik: yogurt, cucumber, mint and garlic dip that’s sometimes thick, sometimes thin.
- Patlican salatasi: this aubergine salad is smoky, a bit like baba ghanoush.
- Muhammara: a spicy pepper and walnut dip.
- Hummus: the popular chickpea dip is found all around the country.
- Kisir: a bulgur salad with herbs and vegetables, seasoned with tomato paste, pepper flakes, onion and molasses.
- Coban salatasi: this shepherd’s salad is made with cucumber, tomatoes, onion, green pepper and parsley, with a lemon-oil dressing.
- Saksuka: aubergine and potatoes sauteed with tomatoes.
- Zeytinyagli barbunya: a cold salad of borlotti or pinto beans cooked with olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic and carrots.
- Mucver: courgette fritters.
- Zeytinyagli yaprak sarma: vine leaves with rice. Stuffed grape leaves are always a favourite. Be aware that the leaves served hot contain meat, while the cold ones are vegetarian.
Kumpir: is simply a baked potato topped with a wide variety of toppings - with many vegetarian options like olives, cheese and onion, and corn. Kumpir is found on almost every street corner and is very popular and filling.
Soup: this favourite dish is enjoyed as an appetiser, a main meal or an event after a night’s partying. Lentil and tomato soup (ezo gelin) or tomato soup (domates) with cheese melted on top. And of course, no bowl of soup is complete without crusty bread: and if there’s one thing Turks really excel at, it’s bread.
Pide: crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside and decked with an array of toppings, Turkey’s answer to pizza is an oblong crust topped with just about anything. Vegetarian favourites include plain cheese, to peppers with egg. Of course, these flatbreads are completely customisable and limited only by your imagination.
Cig kofte: a a quick, cheap and easy vegetarian meal. It’s often found as part of a meze platter, but you can also find them on sale at takeaway cafes, wrapped in a lettuce leaf or a bread wrap. Cig kofte used to be made from raw meat, but this practice was banned due to food safety reasons, and now all cig kofte are vegetarian - except for the odd homemade item.
Lahmacun: the other kind of Turkish pizza differs from pide in that it’s thinner and crispier, and is rolled up like a pancake to eat. Usually, lahmacun is topped with spicy meat, but it’s possible to find the odd vegetarian one. And when you do, make sure you try this moreish meal as it’s really tasty.
Borek: borek is filled pastry, dough layered with different ingredients. Cheese borek are the most ubiquitous, but you can also find spinach borek. The best borek are found from a borek shop - borekci.
Kebabs: Kebab shops are everywhere in Turkey. Usually they’re all about meat. However, sometimes you’ll find a vege kebab made from grilled veges or legumes, or bulgur patties. Served up with the usual salad and lashings of yogurt, of course.
Manti: the Turkish version of dumplings are a bit like ravioli, and topped with a yogurt and spicy tomato sauce. They’re usually filled with meat but you can find spinach and cheese versions.
Zeytinyagli dolma: rice-stuffed veges served at room temperature. The most common are peppers (biber dolma) and aubergines (patlican dolma). These are sometimes served as mezes.
Imam bayildi: translated as “the immam fainted”, this popular aubergine dish has tomatoes, onions and garlic and is served as a meze or a main.
Guvec: is a casserole cooked in a clay pot. There are vegetarian guvec dishes with vegetables, aubergine, potato, bean and okra.
Sweet-toothed vegetarians will be richly rewarded in Turkey. Look out for cezerye, a lokumesque treat made from carrots. Nuts are added for extra crunch. Baklava, pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey is a rich, decadent sweet that’s found just about everywhere. Sample dondurma, Turkey’s version of ice cream. It’s made with milk, sugar, aromatic mastic and thickened with salep, powdered bulbs of wild orchids. It’s thicker than normal ice cream and very delicious. And of course, there's lokum, or Turkish delight, which comes in all shapes and sizes and colours and flavours.
Vege-friendly language guide
- Et var mi? (eht VAHR muh): is there meat?
- Hic et yemem (HEECH eht yeh-MEHM): I don’t eat meat.
- Ben bir vejeteryen (veh zheh tehr YEHN): I am vegetarian.
- Etsiz (Et seez): no meat
- Etsiz yemek var mi? (Et seez yeh mkek var muh?): Do you have any dishes without meat?
- Tavuk, et ve balik yemem: I don’t eat chicken, meat or fish.
- Et: meat
- Tavuk (tah vook): chicken
- Et suyu: meat stock
- Balik (bah luck): fish
- Yumurta (yoo moor tah): egg
- Peynir: cheese