Every time I am reading mouthwatering accounts of Istanbul food I sign: often times the authors tend to be rather insensitive to the cravings of those who for health issues or out of their own choice stick to a particular diet – gluten free, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, raw eating – you name it. Unless you are one of them it has probably never occurred to you that giving up particular food does not make you less of a foodie. And when you travel around you want to explore local flavors as much as your all-eating companions. In order to give a lead to the traveling foodies with dietary restrictions or food allergies I am starting a series of articles with tips on how to savor Istanbul to their own taste. This article is about gluten-free Istanbul.
While Istanbul may have the reputation of the word’s kebab capital once you are eating gluten-free all you see around here is bread. It is hard to think of any meal not accompanied by those boat-shaped golden loaves as crusty from outside as they are airy inside. You order a bowl of soup and you get a half kilo of bread neatly sliced with your order. You get lured by the cries of a kebab vendor and you end up getting yarim ekmek tavuk doner, or pieces of grilled chicken with some salad and onions stuffed into a half of a loaf. You look around for a snack and see a bright red cart with a striped roof selling bread rings sprinkled with sesame seeds. You crave for a dessert and you pass shop windows featuring trays of mouthwatering baklava made of paper thin dough. Is there a way to survive let alone enjoy Istanbul gluten-free? I’ll tell you, there is.
Served buffet-style in most of the hotels your Turkish breakfast will offer a wealth of gluten-free treats: fresh vegetables, cured olives, selection of cheeses, boiled or scrambled eggs – enough material to create your own meal each morning! You may want to have your yogurt drizzled with honey or dark thick grape syrup (pekmez) and seasoned with dried fruits or nuts for a very much Istanbul gluten-free power breakfast.
Lunch and Dinner
Your safest bet will be to head out to a sit-down restaurant with a menu rather than a buffet/canteen. You will think you are in a gluten-free paradise once you see a menu featuring a range of meze, or hot and cold starters. These meze can make up for a meal in itself or can be a wonderful start before you order fish or meat as a main. Ignore the menu and instead ask the waiter to bring you a tray of these starters and choose those looking freshest and most appealing.
Broadly, mezes can be divided into three major types: vegetables and legumes cooked in olive oil (check out puree of smoked eggplant, or assorted beans served whole or turned into a paste, or dolma – wine leaves, wrinkled eggplants or little bell-peppers stuffed with rice), yogurt-based dishes (sprinkled with garlic and herbs) and marinaded sea food (lakerda, or salted tuna fish; istavrit, shrimps, calamaris marinaded in olive oil). There are only a few mezes you would need o skip: kisir, balls of bulgur (cracked wheat) and tomato paste, and calamaris fried in the breadcrumbs.
Naturally you will feel great at any kebab or fish house – just ask them to serve the meat or fish of our choice without bread or bulgur but with more salad on the side.
If you end up in a buffet or canteen-like eatery stay rather purist in your preferences. To be on the safe side you may want to skip all the steaming stews as flour is often used as a thickener in those. For the same reason soup-wise stick to chicken (tavuk suyu) or red meat (et suyu) stock if you crave for a bowl of hot soup. Also you can opt for rice (pilav) making sure it is done without orzo (golden pasta looking like a gigantic rice grain).
Speaking of snacks I’d like to congratulate you as eating gluten-free you will enjoy the healthiest snacks in Istanbul. You will quickly notice mobile carts selling roasted corns and chestnuts that are among the favorite foods on the go in Istanbul. Another strategy may be to stop by a dried fruits and nuts vendor and stock up with world’s best pistachios or hazelnuts and amazingly flavorful sun-dried apricots to snack while exploring Istanbul. In case you decide to go completely local (especially in winter) take a note of the carts selling pickled vegetables and get yourself a glass of a mix high on color, salt and vinegar. Afterwards you may need to look for a fresh fruit juice vendor – luckily there is no lack of those around.
Unless you find yourself in a posh district of Nişantaşı with some cafes featuring gluten-free treats you may start thinking that there is no way for you to get a taste of the vast dessert universe in Istanbul. A few tips to your rescue.
- Savor wonderful fruit desserts: besides the obvious choice of fresh fruit you will find heavenly gluten-free treats of fruits (and nuts and even vegetables) baked or simmered in sugar syrup until their reach the ultimate perfection – check out kabak or ayva tatlisi (pumpkin or quince sweet, respectively).
- Explore the variety of puddings (making sure they use rice starch) – ranging from virtually plain vanilla to the funky chicken (jokes apart, try tavuk goksu or even better – kazan dibi, pudding of chicken breast burned at the bottom in the latter case).
- Submit to the generous offerings of Turkish delight, a signature sweet of this country, that you will be offered anywhere in Istanbul. It is made of corn starch.
People in Istanbul (and anywhere in Turkey) will often be happy to accommodate for your food preferences only that they do not necessarily know how. Dietary restrictions and food allergies have not received great awareness in Turkey to date so many people are just unlikely to know what exactly “gluten-free” means. For instance, major Istanbul bread producer İstanbul Halk Ekmek makes what they believe to be a gluten-free bread (glutensiz ekmek) yet it contains wheat starch. So be specific and instead of staying you are allergic to wheat explain that you do not eat bread, anything make of flour, wheat starch and sesame.
Some gluten-free travelers find it useful to print out a dietary card in Turkish especially if you are staying for a while and planning on some traveling around the country. You can hand in this card to the staff at the hotels, restaurants or cafes you are eating at so they can best accommodate for your food requirements.
Enjoy savoring delicious Istanbul and let me know how it went!