A Turkish Vegan Affair


The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey Photo: A. Akhtar

I visited Istanbul a few years ago and fell more in love with the culture. I loved Turkish food (and coffee) even more after visiting cafes, spice markets, Doner kebab stands, and restaurants where your food is cooked in a clay pot and cracked for you at tableside.

When your food arrives at the table and the server cracks it open, you don't ask any questions. Just eat.

When your food arrives at the table and the server cracks it open, you don’t ask any questions. Just eat. Photo: O. Akhtar


Tea, coffee & chocolate. Photo: O. Akhtar

I love the colors, the pace of life, eating Imam bayildi (braised eggplant), eating waffles in Ortokoy, shephard’s salad, Turkish coffee, karadut tea, you name it, I ate it. Turkish food has a very “herby” palate, often using similar ingredients as the Pakistani foods my family cooks, but substituting herbs for spices, thus not as rich or decadent. My brother has a Turkish friend who was kind enough to come over and give me a tutorial on some easy, healthy Turkish food that you can easily make and personalize. These are his family recipes! Both are based in bulgur, which is a whole-grain cereal often used to substitute for rice. It is nutrient-dense and can be easily added to soups, salads, savories and breads. Turks have been eating bulgur since the Ottoman Empire.

Red lentil patties / balls (Mercimek Koftesi)

You will need:

  • red lentils and small bulgur (2:1 ratio)
  • onion, diced
  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • tomato and pepper paste
  • spices: black pepper, cumin, salt, red hot pepper
  • fresh parsley
  • chopped green onions 


  1. Wash the lentils in a large bowl until water runs clear. In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil – maintain a 2:1 ratio of water to lentils. Add lentils, and simmer until soft (but not overly mushy), about 15 minutes while stirring maybe once or twice. Mix in bulgur; turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it rest until the residual liquid is absorbed by the bulgur, about 15 minutes or longer.
  2. While the lentils are cooking, saute the diced onion, garlic and bring a skillet to medium heat  with olive oil, until tender and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add in tomato paste; red pepper paste stir and turn off heat.
  3. When the lentils and bulgur mix is done cooking, add spices: add salt, onions, paprika, cumin, fresh onions (if you like), lemon juice (juice of a lemon is sufficient), and most of the parsley and green onions. Stir to combine everything.
  4. Now the fun part! Add in the paste to the lentil/bulgur mix and once you have the consistency of cookie dough, form little balls, or patties. Adorn in a tray, each on a lettuce wrap and keep refrigerated!

Dolma (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

ImageLearning how to make these was a real treat. I order these babies all the time in Turkish or Lebanese restaurants, and never knew the amount of work that went into crafting a single dolma. My brother and I sat at the table stuffing the grape leaves, envisioning older Turkish women gathering at one person’s house, reciting the gossip from the village.  You have to do something to make the time pass, right? By the way, the stuffing can be rice-based or quinoa, and can be frozen and made at a later date.

You will need:

  • grape leaves (can be purchased in many ethnic grocers)
  • rice and large bulgur 
  • onion, garlic 
  • olive oil
  • tomato and pepper paste
  • spices: black pepper, salt, mint, red hot pepper, cumin
  • optional: pine nut 


  1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Saute onions until tender. Stir in rice and hot water to cover. Cover and simmer until rice is half cooked, about 10 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat and stir in tomato paste, currants, pine nuts, mint leaves, and cumin. Let mixture cool.
  3. Prepare a large pot by placing sliced onions on the bottom of the pot or large skillet; this protects the dolmas from direct heat when steaming.
  4. Rinse grape leaves in warm water; drain and cut off any stems. Place about 1 teaspoon of the cooled rice mixture in the center of a leaf. Fold in the sides and then roll into a cigar shape. Place in prepared pot. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
  5. Pour in just enough warm water to reach the bottom of the first layer of dolmas. Place an plate upside down on top of the grape leaves and cover the pot. Simmer over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes. Check the water level often and add more as necessary.

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