There are some parts of the world I worry about visiting. Not because of the crime, the crap weather, or the political instability – but simply because I wonder if I would find anything traditional to eat as a non- red or white meat eater. I’m not really a vegetarian (bring on the crab!) but I mostly eat that way. For a split second, I considered this potential obstacle when traveling to Turkey as I tend to think of all the permutations of kebabs and doner when I think of Turkish cuisine. Luckily, I was so very, very wrong. Starting from the flight on Turkish airlines, I indulged in incredibly flavorful and sophisticated food that happened to also be vegetarian. Yeah, I even snuck out my cell phone camera to snap my crispy colorful salad with salty fresh cheese on the flight to Istanbul.
The next course was a briny rice and nut stuffed dolma, (non-veg smoked salmon), and delicately spiced lentil salad.
You want dessert but can’t decide amongst healthy fresh fruits, a light cheese plate or dainty pastries? No worries, you’ll get all of the above.
For breakfast, we headed to the hotel’s breakfast bar in our PJs to fill up on lemony lentil soup, fruit yogurt, parsley and potato salad, fresh cheese with dill and parsley, cucumber and hard boiled egg, potato croquette, Turkish pastry, toast with hazelnut/cocoa spread. Then we headed back up for a mid-morning nap. Ah, vacation.
A great mid-day snack that is easily available in Istanbul is the “Turkish pizza” – lahmacun. Its a canoe-shaped pide (like a pita bread) with a thin layer of tomato sauce, cheese and herbs.
One of my favorite dishes was imam bayildi (“the imam fainted,” supposedly when he tasted this treat whipped up for him) which is grilled eggplant poached in olive oil with tomato and herbs and served at room temperature. The dish tastes like the essence of Mediterranean cooking – smoky, fresh, tart, and absolutely unctuous as the sweet olive oil should be dripping down your chin when you bite into it. Poaching in olive oil such that the oil is an integral part of the dish is a popular and traditional way to prepare vegetables especially for hot weather.
At any time, anywhere, you can dig into a fresh-fried plate of sigara borek for the perfect snack. Filled with salty cheese something like feta, these crisp snacks are named such because they resemble little cigars. We started many meals munching on them.
At a traditional Anatolian restaurant, women prepared these crepe-like flat breads on wide pans. This gozleme is filled with a thin layer of a spinach mixture. Julie and I thought of our last two dishes (the cigara and this gozleme) as Turkish taquitos and quesadilla.
Since we were visiting in winter, we looked forward to a hot not-too-heavy meal after a day of visiting mosques and palaces. Our favorite of the soup was this light but satisfying ezo gelin, a red lentil soup made with bulgar for heartiness, mint for a refreshing flavor, olive oil for richness, and served with fresh lemon for that perfect punch of tartness. Here, it is served with a gigantic pide to dip.
Mmmmm, ezo gelin red lentil soup with mint.
More snacks: Lay’s, I implore you to bring these chips with yogurt and herbs to American shores! I don’t even like potato chips, but these were unconscionably addictive because the flavor was so superior to sour cream and onion – less sour, less intense, but with a wonderful tang. We brought some for the plane trip back to extend our trip as long as possible.
We did visit one fast food place – Simit Sarayi where you can duck in for a cup of apple tea and a simit, a sesame ring of bread similar to a bagel. They are also a popular street snack, sold wrapped in newspaper from carts all over the city.
When I did eat as a vegetarian in Turkey, I was not disappointed with the quality or variety of fantastic Turkish veg options (and there were many more things to choose from at every spot, high end or street-side, like stuffed roasted tomatoes, eggs baked in tomato sauce, and mushroom and zucchini casseroles.)
However, let us not forget that Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait and edges into the Sea of Marmara, a nook off of the Mediterranean. So of course, next episode: seafood! Also, a swirl through the spice bazaar where I stocked up on pomegranate tea.
Did you miss the post on Istanbul’s desserts? Go into sugar-shock here.