Meat-free living in the land of the kebab
Though still limited in scale, the community of vegans and vegetarians in Turkey is expanding, as is the number of businesses catering to them.
By Anna Wood for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 14/05/12
The delights of Turkish cuisine are enjoyed internationally, with restaurants and bakeries worldwide offering spiced kebabs, steaming stuffed pastries and flaky baklava. Though they summon up a wealth of positive adjectives, the traditional hallmarks of the Turkish kitchen do not conjure the word "vegetarian," let alone "vegan."
Istanbul's Beyoglu district is the centre of vegetarian culture, home to several exclusively vegetarian restaurants that offer a mix of Turkish and international fare. [Reuters]
Still, a small but dedicated vegetarian and vegan community in Turkey exists, and its numbers are growing.
"The culture of vegetarian/vegan living is definitely spreading," Tarkan Apari, the founder of Ecolife, a 100% vegetarian and organic market in Istanbul, told SES Türkiye.
"For a city this big, the number of vegetarians and vegans hasn't yet become a big figure," Apari said. "[But] when you say 'vegetarian' or 'vegan', many people know more or less what kind of lifestyle you lead."
Though a seemingly modest victory, this was not always the case, and the terms can cause confusion even among knowledgeable people. While vegetarians eschew animal flesh, vegans do not consume or otherwise use any sort of animal-derived product, be it eggs, a leather jacket or honey.
When Yasemin Avdar, an activist and the founder of the Turkish vegan blog Vegankedi [VeganCat], decided to become a vegetarian at the age of 14, her mother was quite distressed.
"My mother thought this was a disease, probably because I was so young," Avdar told SES Türkiye. "When I decided to become a vegetarian, she seemed to think I was going to die."
Rather than becoming ill, Avdar flourished, so family and friends became more understanding and stopped trying to slip meat into her meals.
Apari didn't know any vegetarians or vegans when he became a vegetarian 15 years ago, but by the time he transitioned to veganism five years ago, things had changed a bit.
In addition to the organic and vegetarian products offered by Ecolife and other health food stores, restaurants that are either completely vegetarian or cater to vegetarians have also began to open.
In Istanbul, the epicentre of vegetarian culture is the Beyoglu district, which is home to several exclusively vegetarian restaurants, including local favourites like Parsifal and Zencefil, which offer a mix of Turkish and international fare.
Local demand has inspired restaurants to target this emerging market, says Apari.
"In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of cafes and restaurants that host people who have adopted vegetarian/vegan lifestyles, and people who consume animal products," he told SES Türkiye.
The increasing number of Turkish vegetarians and vegans and the influx of tourists and foreign residents in the area have also affected demand, and more mainstream restaurants have expanded the meat-free sections of their menus. This often involves highlighting the naturally vegetarian aspects of traditional Turkish cuisine, including its wealth of mezes and olive oil-based dishes. At a smaller number of establishments, ingredients such as tofu and quinoa are incorporated into the menu.
Adam Roberts, a new transplant to Istanbul, who teaches music and composition at Istanbul Technical University, says he has found it easy to live as a strict lacto-vegetarian here.
"Turkish cuisine has a plethora of delicious vegetarian options. I particularly love mezes and cig kofte," Roberts told SES Türkiye, referring to a local specialty of bulgur-based "meat" balls.
"As soon as they come up with a tofu version of kokorec [rotisserie lamb intestines], we'll be totally set," Roberts jokes.
The reasons for swearing off meat and animal products in Turkey, as elsewhere, are personal. Apari cites his lifelong love of animals and growing interest in alternative, healthy living as the motivation for his life choices.
Avdar, meanwhile, was horrified by the traditional animal sacrifices she witnessed during religious holidays as a child, and became an adamant animal rights activist. As such, she is less complacent about the pace of change in Turkey, and what she perceives as people's dedication to the movement.
"I think that if veganism can avoid being perceived as a passing whim or a trend -- thus losing its core message -- if instead it's embraced and adopted as a lifestyle, there can be real development in this area," Avdar told SES Türkiye.