In this city that does sizzling, spicy, skewered meat so well, the concept of vegetarianism is met with skepticism and disbelief.
“But what will you eat?” is the first response, followed by inquiries as to what does and does not qualify as meat.
“Do you eat chicken?” No.
“Mushrooms?” Mushrooms?? Erm, yes. Do mushrooms have faces?? Is there arcane knowledge of mushrooms remembered only in this part of the world?
I was told it would be difficult to avoid meat here, but İstanbul is rich in veg’n options. Tantalizing displays of fresh produce spill from every street corner. Liquid vitamin C and antioxidants are available from the stacks of oranges and pomegranates ready to be pressed into juice ($1). Every second street has a shop with incredible piles of nuts and dried fruit waiting to be shoveled into bags.
Two millennia of cooking has resulted in the same number of recipes that show the local ingredients off perfectly. A night out for meze brings tasting plates of eggplant spread, creamy feta, beans in olive oil, yoghurt and spinach dip, tomatoes with garlic, and rice wrapped in grape leaves accompanied by grilled fluffy white bread. Dinner with a friend means a table with two types of bean salad, stuffed green peppers, potatoes with dill, and tomatoes with delectable fresh green leaves.
The real difficulty with eating vegetarian here could be resisting the lightly breaded, meltingly soft calamari, or the jewel-like dumplings called manti with a speck of spiced meat inside, nestled in yoghurt with a bright dressing of Spice Route favorites. Clearly, these dishes are dangerous and best avoided.
Getting off the bus in the morning I’m stopped in my tracks by the toasty scent of bagel-like items with white cheese. As I start eating, I discover a mysterious black paste. The taste seems so familiar, but I can’t identify it. Is it vegemite? Caviar? A local colleague knows it at a glance: black olives.
Olive paste and cheese on sesame seed rings (simit) for 75 cents only needs a hot glass of çay for an ideal breakfast. Eating vegetarian in İstanbul isn’t difficult at all.