Turkey’s reputation for being a country with a meat-heavy diet is well-deserved, but there’s more variety than the stereotype suggests. Vegan cuisine is flourishing in parts of the country, with many chefs drawing on traditional recipes for inspiration.
In Ankara, Junk Vegan cafe is one of a wave of vegan businesses that have become more visible in the capital in recent years. Sevgi Gümüşlüoğlu and Kardelen Altun, the two young women who set up the cafe, told Inside Turkey that Junk Vegan’s origin’s lie in a “gold coin day” held by Gümüşlüoğlu’s mother. Gold coin days are traditional social events where women host gatherings, serving sweet and savoury pastries to accompany the conversation, in return for financial contributions from the guests. Gümüşlüoğlu’s mother originally wanted to make money to pay for driving lessons for her daughter, but the 4,000 liras they raised went into the new business instead.
Junk Vegan was launched in October 2020 from the house that Gümüşlüoğlu and Altun share, as a bicycle delivery service. When demand increased, they rented a shop unit – although for the moment, because of the pandemic, they can only use it to sell take-away. Nonetheless, the pair have found their way into a supportive community – a friend does graphic design for them in return for vegan sausage.
For Gümüşlüoğlu, making food for customers was a steep learning curve.
“I was raised like a boy – I didn’t do any housework, I did the repair work with my dad but never did anything with my mom – so I never knew how to cook,” she said. The pair drew on traditional dishes for their menu, such as hummus and aubergine salad.
Gümüşlüoğlu said that her interest in food was piqued when she decided to become a vegetarian at high school.
“[I was] a lonely child. I needed to socialise, and it was a time when activism in Ankara was lively,” she said. “I used to love meeting people in the streets. I started joining street protests around 13 or 14. I got to meet a lot of different people and learn from them. This is where I first learned about veganism.”
The business partners met at university, where they both became vegan.
“It’s presented as if vegans have to do something more than other people. But really, we do less. We decide to stop doing something. That’s it,” Gümüşlüoğlu said.
At first, their choices met resistance from family members.
“My mum was like ‘you’re gonna die,’” said Gümüşlüoğlu. “Then they accepted it, and my mum started cooking vegetarian dishes for me. She really freaked out when I became vegan, but she still tried on the second day. Now she’s a vegetarian too.”
“I was okay accepting her becoming a vegetarian but veganism was hard,” Gümüşlüoğlu’s mother Sema said, adding that she was concerned for her daughter’s health. “You can’t even explain it to people. When I order food for her, I just say that she’s allergic to animal products. Even my mother still asks me if Gümüşlüoğlu won’t even have fish. I’m 50, and my mother will still bring me milk at night. She thinks I’ll get sick if I don’t drink it.”
Perhaps the most asked-about and most challenging meal for vegans is breakfast, which in Turkey often includes milk, eggs, butter, honey and sausages.
“We were practically cheese addicts,” said Gümüşlüoğlu, of their lives before they turned vegan. “We ate even more after becoming vegetarians. Animal products had replaced animals in our diet instead of plants. We had to learn about plant-based alternatives like hummus and bean paste.”
Since grilling – usually meat – is another big part of Turkish food culture, the pair quickly got tired of eating grilled aubergine or potato, inventing their own “junk beef” meat substitute, made of vegetables, cereals and spices. Junk beef is also a way to challenge gender stereotypes, since grilling is traditionally thought of as a male pastime.
Diyarbakir province, in south-eastern Turkey, is a part of the country where meat-free dishes are practically non-existent. But it’s also where the first branch of Gabo, a vegan chain that has since expanded to Ankara, was established in 2014. Gabo was an outlier in its transformation of traditional Kurdish cuisine, although it has since added recipes from other regions and cultures in Turkey.
“My college roommate was from Urfa, said Merve Yavuz, manager of Gabo’s Ankara branch. “Her mother would fill up our freezer with Jewish meatballs from Urfa cuisine every time she visited. I missed it so much after becoming a vegan that I knew I had to veganise that recipe. We did it, and it’s one of our menu’s top items.”
The meatballs have proved a success, according to Yavuz. “This old man showed up and said he was from Urfa, and wanted to taste the Jewish meatballs. We didn’t get a chance to tell him the dishes were all vegan. He ate his meal and said that he was really happy to taste Jewish meatballs outside of Urfa. He told us to add more fatty meats next time,” Yavuz recalls.
In many cases, traditional Turkish dishes – like the vine leaves stuffed with red lentils that come from Yavuz’s home province of Tekirdağ – are effectively already vegan. “Local cuisines really offer us a lot of resources to use,” said Yavuz. “This would help make vegan dishes more familiar to people.”
Another common misconception is that eating vegan is expensive, Yavuz said, adding that charcuterie is much more expensive and less accessible than vegan protein sources like beans.
“That’s not my personal opinion, it’s a fact,” she said, pointing to a special dish on their menu. “I buy ground soy for 20 liras a kilo, replacing the dish’s most expensive item, the red meat, with a lower cholesterol, low fat and healthier alternative.”
Yıldız Şeker Altaş, founder of the Vegan Groceries shop and internet outlet, said that the easiest price test was to shop for produce, beans and grains at the local bazaar.
“These groups are enough for you to have a healthy and balanced diet. People think that all vegans drink smoothies in the mornings and eat raw cakes for each meal. Quite the opposite – we have an ordinary breakfast with greens and olives, and common meals with beans and rice. The prices of vegan dairy products will likely decrease as demand increases.”
Altaş set up her chain because she struggled to find vegan cooking ingredients in grocery stores.
“We based it on our own needs, hoping that grocery stores will become vegan too.” Increased plant-based alternatives are encouraging even for non-vegan consumers, Altaş said, adding that “people don’t think to turn vegan until they have health issues”.
Zeynep Serap Tekten Aksürmeli, a sociologist at Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli University who has studied veganism, told Inside Turkey that this was an area of life where women take a prominent role as activists.
“Sociologically, this is a challenge,” she said. “This includes parents asking if you can’t eat a dish because of broth or being called “women’s business” by men.”
Yet Tekten said that vegan identities were more varied than people often assume.
“That means that it can spread to all parts of society. So if I become vegan, I can influence my mum to become vegan. I don’t have to worry about lifestyle differences, she can survive as a vegan too, even if it’s just because she loves our cat.”