Turkey ‘can become global center for vegetarians’

Turkey ‘can become global center for vegetarians’

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
Turkey ‘can become global center for vegetarians’

Turkey can attract vegetarian tourists and become a global center for vegetarian cuisine, veteran journalist Mehmet Yaşin has said.

Turkish cuisine is an imperial, therefore a very rich one but at the same time it has a lot of recipes without meat, according to the prominent food and beverage writer. “There is no meat in poor kitchens. And the kitchen of the poor are creative cuisines,” he said.

Each year there is a debate in Turkey about celebrating the New Year’s Eve. Traditionally Turks do not have such a custom. Has it come to us from the West?

Actually there is no such thing as a new year eve dinner in the West either. (Catholic) Christians have their special dinner at Christmas.

But obviously as the year comes to an end it becomes an occasion to come together with friends and relatives. In Turkey as well it is celebrated in many houses. But even for the rest of the year in general we don’t have the tradition of an Italian type big crowded dinner tables. In fact it is considered inappropriate and even sinful to talk on the table. You have to eat in silence and eat quickly. There is no tradition of eating out in Anatolia. This is especially true for evening dinners.

This seems to change especially in the course of the past decade.

You may question their quality but food shows on television, articles on food, gastronomy have sort of forced people towards food.

Gastronomy tourism has started and it is a lucrative business.

Gaziantep has played a pioneering role on that. There were no places left in planes flying to Gaziantep; taxi drivers, hotels, gift shops and restaurants became very happy.

Seeing that; other cities started to go on that direction. Malatya, Urfa, Kastamonu have some of Turkey’s most developed and tasteful cuisines. Their municipalities have started promoting their cuisine in big cities like İstanbul. There is significant progress. Turks have learned to go after food; to take touristic trips with food at its center.

But the problem is that there is not enough infrastructure. There is not enough hotels in Urfa for instance to cater to tourists.

One the one hand we say Turkish cuisine is very rich but on the other hand we did not have the tradition to eat out. How does these two reconcile?

Our cuisine is rich because it is an imperial cuisine. It is a cuisine that has also fed from the migrants, as well as from the Silk Road. We borrowed from the Balkans, Africa, Arab lands, from the Caucasus.

In other words all the people who passed through took away something but also left behind something. And when they came in contact with local cuisine, special dishes came into being.

Turkish cuisine is rich yet when I set on the road 13 years ago for the TV show on local tastes I really had some difficulty. If you go to Anatolia you cannot taste the local dishes unless you have special connections like me. Turkish cuisine is cooked at home; it has not made it to restaurants.

First of all it is too laborious. Second there is no demand for it from the locals themselves. Local dishes are already cooked at home. They want the dishes that are not cooked at home like meatballs, kebab.

In terms of eating out, the real restaurants in Turkey are the eateries of the shopkeepers (or tradesmen; known as esnaf lokantası in Turkish).

We rather have a lunch habit. The tradesmen, the shopkeepers do not go home for lunch. They eat simple things like soup, meatballs in the restaurant.

That’s why there is not a diversified menu in restaurants in Anatolia. With gastronomy tourism developing slowly I see now that restaurants started to include local Anatolian dishes in their menu. Or some tell their customers to give a preorder. Because it takes 6 hours, for instance, to cook the İskilip dolması.

There is also tremendous rise in fast food which seems to threaten the traditional Anatolian dishes?

Obviously fast food has become popular among the youth and had a disruptive effect on their tastes. But against fast food, street food started to get popular in Turkey. I see a lot of vendors of street food; from meatball to soups to pickles to pilafs with chickpeas to kokoreç (lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads and grilled horizontally).

Just as is the case with the world I now see ques in front of single dish small restaurants. Turkish youth is sliding from American fast food to Turkish street food.

I think one of the reason for the rise of street food is the opening of universities in nearly every corner in Anatolia. University students need cheap and fast food. I believe 2019 will be the year of street food in Turkey.

What makes you say that?

I also get it from the fact that investors, and especially youngsters who want to invest money into this business ask my advice about it. It is a lucrative business and they don’t lose much money since it demands a small amount of investment.

But Turkish cuisine is yet to come out to restaurants. And the world does not know about our cuisine. We fail to promote our cuisine. It is the first time I am hearing a serious statement about gastro tourism from a minister.

It seems culture and tourism ministers did not consider food until recently as part of culture. That’s probably also why Turkish cuisine remained hidden in the households’ kitchens.

While there is a need of promoting Turkish cuisine abroad Turkish gourmet writers meanwhile are also complaining about lack of different restaurants offering tasty food in Turkey.

One problem is the price of the ingredients. They have become so expensive that in order to afford the rent of the place they are forced to use cheap and therefore tasteless ingredients. No matter what you do, if you use cheap ingredients the dish cannot be tasteful. It has become expensive to make delightful dishes especially due to the price of the meat.

Lately the trend is also for healthy food. How does the Turkish cuisine fare in terms of healthy food?

We have enough number of vegetarian dishes to become the global center for vegetarians. We have lots of recipes without meat; because there is no meat in poor kitchens. And the kitchen of the poor are creative cuisines. Housewives are incredible cooks.

Even when you go to East Anatolia where the cuisine is rather based on meat the amount of vegetables used there is as much as it is in the Aegean.

Turkey can attract a lot of vegetarian tourists.

What would be your advice to foreigners looking for good food in Turkey?

They should definitely try small shopkeepers’ eateries wherever they go to Turkey. These small restaurants are obliged to cook tasteful dishes because they live side by side with their everyday customers. In other words they can’t say “let me deceive them; I won’t see them tomorrow.” The clients will come back the next day and
they risk to lose them if they cook badly. That’s why these restaurants are the longest standing restaurants in Turkey.

Turkey ‘can become global center for vegetarians’WHO IS MEHMET YAŞİN?

Mehmet Yaşin has worked for more than 20 years in several newspapers as reporter, news editor and editor-in-chief.

He initiated the publication of Atlas magazine. He later became the general director of Doğan magazine group.

Mehmet Yaşin also founded Doğan Book and remained long years as its editor-in-chief.

He then started producing the food program on CNN Türk called “tasty stops on the road,” and became one of Turkey’s most known food and beverage writers.

He penned articles about food and beverage on daily Hürriyet as well as on other magazines as Istanbul Life, Atlas, Meet and Beef.

Yaşin is the author of four books.