In traditional Turkish cuisine, there are countless vegetarian and vegan options. The most interesting of all is a unique category of olive oil-based dishes.
By Aylin Öney Tan
Photos by Merve Göral
Going vegetarian or even vegan in Turkey might be easier than one may think. Contrary to the perception, Turkish cuisine is not all meat-centric; it has an incredibly rich diversity of vegan choices.
Olive oil based dishes in Turkish cuisine are called zeytinyağlı, literally meaning “with olive oil.” These dishes are deliciously vegan. The technique is what makes the dish so tasty. Vegetables are sautéed in olive oil with onions and sometimes a little garlic. With just the right amount of water added, they are braised in their own juices until the liquid is reduced to almost zero, and what is left is an olive oil emulsion, pretty much like a sauce, that contains all the flavor and goodness of the olive oil, veggies, and onions. Needless to say, a zeytinyağlı dish is way tastier than plain boiled vegetables drizzled with olive oil as a dressing.
The root of olive oil-based dishes can be traced to the Byzantine era, but they were brought to perfection in the Ottoman times when diverse ethnic and religious groups often created dishes in accordance with their distinct identities. During the time of Lent, Christian communities had to abstain from all meat and dairy, including eggs, so a very tasty and totally vegan cooking style was developed.
It was also lovingly embraced by Jews who had to obey kosher rules of not mixing meat and dairy in the same meal, and hence had to stay away from butter or animal-based fats. Although following Lent rules or keeping kosher is now far less prevalent in today’s Turkey, oil-based dishes have crossed-over to society at large and remain as popular as ever.
For example, the much-loved stuffed vine leaves or stuffed bell peppers are normally served warm with a meat and rice filling, often accompanied with yogurt. But a meat-free version with simply rice and onions cooked with olive oil was made for the Lenten fast. This variety is called yalancı dolma, “fake dolma”; dolma meaning “stuffed”. In this dish—in lieu of meat—currants, pine nuts, and dolma spice (a combination of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger) are added to create a satisfying, yet vegan, plate.
The secret to a good olive oil dish is the balance of flavors. The taste of the vegetable is the base here; everything else added is to enhance its own flavor; which is usually a very few touches of condiments such as salt, sugar and a bit of acidity. The onion is usually an essential ingredient that naturally has some sweetness, sometimes the addition of tomatoes give a sweet-sour balance too. Spices are seldom used as they would mask the vegetables’ own taste. Certain vegetables require some sharpness; that is where lemon juice or even orange juice steps in.
For example, celeriac is often cooked with orange juice, artichokes love lemon juice, so do leeks. The concentrated reduced cooking liquid of the ingredients combined with sweetness, saltiness and acidity create an umami-like flavor, all elements elevating the taste of the base vegetable, all best in room temperature.
Despite its name, the quantity of olive oil used is not too high in these dishes. Usually a few tablespoons or half a cup suffices for a whole pot; so in contrast with its name, zeytinyağlı dishes are super-light, diet-friendly options.
When the vegetable contains a lot of water—such as leek, spinach, chard, or wild greens—rice or bulgur practically vacuum up all the excess liquid, also adding a satisfying bite to the dish.
Vegan classics of Turkish cuisine
For çiğ köfte, bulgur is kneaded into a minced meat-like consistency with tomato and pepper pastes and spices, the so-called ‘raw meatballs’ are tucked into a sheet of flat bread, drizzled with pomegranate sauce, and topped with spring onions and parsley.
Two other dishes that find a place during teatime gatherings of women are mercimekköftesi, lentil balls, and kısır, a raw bulgur salad. Both are utterly delicious, and an eye opening experience to the vegan face of Turkish cooking.
Pulses are the basis of many vegan-friendly mezze. Humus is a favorite; chickpeas are mashed with copious amounts of tahini and lemon juice, making it both rich and light in a peculiar way.
Fava takes its name from dried fava beans, cooked with onions until very soft, seasoned with salt, sugar, and olive oil, puréed and left to gel, and cut into squares to serve. Despite its rigid look, it is velvety smooth in the mouth.
Pilaki is the queen of pulse-based mezze. Beans or fresh borlotti beans are cooked with olive oil in a garlic-onion-tomato rich mixture, which is a key trio in the taste guarantee.
There are many eggplant dishes. Another must-have mezze plate is eggplant salad, a silky puree of mashed roasted eggplants. Sometimes the roasted eggplant is just cut into chunks and mixed with chopped green peppers and tomatoes, all dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.
Bean or black-eyed peas salad (börülce) with olive oil and vinegar dressings are satisfyingly filling.
Tomato rich mezze are also completely vegan. Muhammara is a spread of roasted red peppers, ground walnuts, breadcrumbs, tomato, pepper pastes, and onions, often with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses.
Acılıezme is a juicy salad, with lots of finely chopped fresh tomatoes, green peppers, and onions. Another salad of choice would also be çoban salatası (shepherd’s salad), simply chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, and onions.
Turkish cuisine is also rich in vegan desserts; from baked pumpkin and quince, to the tahini-based helva, to the pudding aşure, a wholesome concoction of wheat berries, pulses, dried fruits, and nuts.
Unwritten rules of zeytinyağlı dishes
- A single vegetable almost always dominates the plate. Zeytinyağlı pırasa is usually just leeks, perhaps with a handful of carrots to add color.
- Tomatoes do not often feature in an olive oil dish; never with winter or spring vegetables, although in summer they match perfectly with eggplant, okra, or barbunya (borlotti) beans.
- If used, herbs are always added later as a topping to decorate the dish. Fresh dill with artichokes, young fava beans, peas, celeriac, or Jerusalem artichokes are obligatory. Parsley goes with eggplant and borlotti beans. No herbs for green beans, spinach, or purslane, never!
- Rice is never used with celeriac, peas, artichokes, fava beans, eggplant, green beans, or okra. It is usually added to spinach, purslane, and other green leaves, and to leeks and Jerusalem artichokes.