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Veganism wins hearts, minds in meat-loving Istanbul

Vegan shops are springing up across Istanbul, and many curious Turks are learning to make revamp their traditional meat, egg and dairy-based dishes.

Minced, spiced and wrapped on metal skewers to be served as Adana kebabs or sliced and stewed in a pot with vegetables, meat lies close to the heart of traditional Turkish cuisine. Yet a growing trend is rejecting that relationship. Veganism has entered the scene as an alternative to the animal-based food culture of Istanbul, where an increasing number of vegans and shops are greeted with curiosity, admiration and skepticism all at once.

There are tens of vegan shops in Istanbul, many of them in the bohemian Kadikoy district on the Anatolian side or the landmark Taksim area. Vegan products are also now sold in higher-end supermarkets and vegan activists answer questions in street booths. The word is out.

“There has been an incredible hype in Istanbul, especially in the past six months,” vegan dietitian Kevser Baskara told Al-Monitor, sipping her soy latte. “I believe it is due to the exposure of scientific studies showing both health-focused and environmental benefits of veganism, and perhaps the anthrax danger we recently faced,” she said, referring to the red meat crisis right before Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, in late August.

“Of course, documentaries such as ‘Earthling’ and ‘What The Health’ and social media have also given a push, honestly showing the cruelty of the meat and dairy industries to the traditional consumer,” Baskara said, adding that there are vegan alternatives available for such products, including vegan doner kebab, yogurt and cheese both online and across Istanbul.

“Besides, anyone can make, for example, soy milk at home overnight easily,” she said.

A vegan views animals as individuals with equal rights to free lives and does not see them as direct resources for any purpose, including for clothing, product testing and for dietary consumption. Yet a lifestyle that involves dropping the variety of cheese, fish dishes, pastries, yogurt and eggs from one's diet and swapping them with vegan options is quite unusual in Turkey, where friends and family feast over food that almost always includes meat, eggs or dairy. It is a new concept even for Istanbul, the country’s cultural capital and hippest city.

“When a meal includes foreign products such as avocados or quinoa, people automatically think that it is somehow vegan, although the meal itself could include cheese or even meat. Turkey is still very much alien to the concept of a plant-based diet,” Baskara said, adding that veganism often seems radical and elitist to the traditional consumer.

Despite how popular health specialists encourage meat consumption on national television, the dietitian said that she has time and time again seen her patients feel and look better when they stop consuming high-cholesterol animal-based products such as eggs and red meat.

“I see their counts improve and I see them lose weight. Actually, many of them initially come to me to lose weight before they experience further surprising benefits of the vegan life,” Baskara said. Asked whether she would raise her own baby vegan, she said, “Absolutely.” 

Nevsin Mengu, a prominent Turkish news anchor and a determined Ironman competitor, seconded that perspective with utmost certainty. “I wish I had been raised vegan,” said Mengu, who first became a vegetarian in middle school. Waking up before sunrise almost every day to prepare for the triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile marathon without a break, Mengu is certain her health is just as good as it was before she quit dairy and eggs.

According to Mengu, veganism brings eco-friendly, cruelty-free alternatives to habits ingrained in the traditional culture of Turkey that are destined for gradual change. She calls it “the evolution of the conscience” in her 2018 TED talk meant to help break widespread prejudices against veganism.

“Eating vegan is not expensive," Mengu said. Although some vegetables cost as much as meat after the recent price hikes, cheap alternatives can be found on the market.

"You can actually find coconut oil that is cheaper than regular butter,” Mengu added. Butter is widely considered essential for many traditional national dishes, but not by everyone. “My family is from the Aegean coast, where our dishes, the meze [appetizers] and pot stews, are traditionally cooked with olive oil,” she noted. She said that choosing which to consume is a declaration of ethics.

Switching to veganism is simply choosing vegan products over regular ones and nothing more, said Itir Irem Yildirim, a 27-year-old vegan activist from the southern province of Adana, as she arrived at the Vegan Bakkal, a tiny but popular vegan store in Kadikoy. Yildirim is part of an initiative that sets up vegan booths around the city, ready to supply answers for non-vegans who come scratching their heads.

“They come in curiosity. Mostly 25-to-30-year-olds come and ask us questions, but I have spoken with 60- and 70-year-olds, too,” Yildirim said. “I go out and do this because I wish someone had told me before.”

Noting that there are almost no restaurants left in Kadikoy without vegan or vegetarian options, Yildirim said she rarely gets criticism, though she has been accused of violating her religion and culture.

Vegan Bakkal owner Yildiz Seker Altas, who is from the southern province of Kahramanmaras, said her mother was worried to hear her 30-year-old daughter was going vegan. “But I was prepared for that talk and I took her the almond vegan cheese I had made,” Seker said. After seeing that there were other options, her mother accepted her decision.

Seker’s small shop is busy throughout the day selling vegan options on site and online. She is on hand not only to sell products, but to explain and discuss issues regarding veganism. From pea protein meatballs to vegan manti (Turkish ravioli), cheese varieties, supplements such as spirulina and the antioxidant camu camu, vegan cat food and sanitary products, it is a hub for introducing veganism to the people of Istanbul and offering them alternatives.

“Some people see the sign, come in and ask as questions and decide to give veganism a try,” Seker said. “We have younger customers who come to shop with their parents, and we have seen their parents go vegan as well. There is a strong prejudice against veganism, but it is really rooted in a lack of knowing and familiarity, and that’s where we come in,” she added.

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