We spoke to the owners of a vegan restaurant, a doctor who recommends a plant-based diet, and a young vegan in Istanbul to see how the trend is growing in Turkey.
Ozge Sen and Belkis Boyacigiller started the vegan restaurant Bi Nevi Deli in August 2014 when they were in their early thirties. Boyacigiller says their decision was prompted by a lack of delicious, healthy and ethnically diverse culinary options when eating out.
“We chose to spotlight new emerging superfoods and ingredients, many of which we introduced to the Turkish public, and create colourful, health-based dishes that would satisfy not just vegans and vegetarians but anyone who was looking for a good, refreshing meal, different from the standard fare,” she writes in an email interview.
The menu at Bi Nevi Deli, located in Istanbul’s Etiler district on the European side, is entirely vegan. Boyacigiller says they decided not to include anything that they didn’t eat on the menu –– even when that meant cutting out the one vegetarian dish, a pişmaniye (candy floss) cheesecake that was “very Instagrammable” back in the day in 2015.
Boyacigiller confirms that there is increased interest in veganism/vegetarianism in Turkey. She says in recent years, many new commercially available local brands have emerged, such as non-dairy alternative milk brands like Fomilk and Nilky, cheese brands like Orfa the Standard Vegan, Trakya Ciftligi, Fomilk, Cheezmir as well as meat alternatives like Veggy’s Döner, Tofu, Schnitzel, Moving Mountains Burgers, Vappy’s seitan, Limonita Vegan Butcher’s charcuterie options.
“This, plus the pandemic and working from home, has helped contribute to an influx of new vegan influencers from Turkey creating content for the Turkish public,” she adds. She also feels that with more products readily available, “making the switch becomes a lot easier!”
Sen and Boyacigiller follow vegan/vegetarian influencers on social media, such as Kathy Freston, Rich Roll, Lewis Hamilton, Dr. Garth Davis, TheGutHealthMD, Kimberly Snyder and Plant-based Juniors, who they say “offer inspiration and key nutritional info.”
Boyacigiller says she and her business partner Ozge Sen have been seeing an awareness that eating more plants is beneficial. “Many of our customers,” she points out, “if not necessarily vegan, are eating plant-predominant diets.”
Dr Murat Kinikoglu, 66, has been a vegan for more than seven years and a pescatarian (“I used to eat fish once a week”) for eight years before that: “I haven’t eaten red meat, chicken, yogurt, eggs, cheese for fifteen years. I feel great, and my lab results are perfect.” He says eating animals causes many ills, from inflammation to diabetes, to heart attacks, kidney failure, and high blood pressure, as evidenced by many scientific papers.
“People are slaves to their eating habits,” he notes, “and they ignore these facts. Because I know eating vegan is a way to a healthy lifestyle, I recommend my patients follow a vegan diet.”
He also believes that as in around the world, there is great interest in Turkey for vegan eating. “When there is demand, the number of vegan restaurants and cafes increases,” he says. “Companies that deliver meals add vegan options to their menus. Leading a vegan lifestyle becomes easier day by day.”
Bi Nevi Deli’s Boyacigiller gives credit to Netflix documentaries that are educating people on the atrocities occurring in commercial animal meat production and the negative effects on the environment that can be seen and felt firsthand. “Add to that the documentaries showing the healing and strengthening powers of a whole-foods, plant-based diet like in The Game Changers and What the Health, we always see an uptick in new customer acquisition after the release of such documentaries on Netflix!”
Munevver Dobur, 28, is one such vegan. She has been a vegan for four years, and was a vegetarian for one year before that. At first, she says, she was attracted to a vegan lifestyle for environmental reasons. But then she quickly realised there was an ethical component to it, after viewing documentaries on commercial farming and watching YouTube videos.
“Now,” she says, “it’s not just about the food for me. I also care about how my clothes are made, buy cruelty-free cosmetics (not tested on animals or containing animal products), down-free pillows and medications that don’t have animal-origin components.”
According to Boyacigiller, many people became more conscious of what they put on their plates after realising that coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, and “is a direct result of how we raise animals for human consumption.”
Dr Kinikoglu agrees, pointing out that movements embraced by young people have always had a greater potential to grow. “Becoming vegan and educational levels are directly correlated,” he says. “Young people are aware that the world is going through a crisis, that something needs to be done. Someone who switches to eating a plant-based diet doesn’t just help their own health, but stops forests from being cleared by fire [to make way for agricultural land], and helps animals live.”
Boyacigiller says that athletes and celebrities following a plant-based diet have also contributed to the popularity of vegetarianism/veganism: “Many of the GOATs (greatest of all time) athletes in recent years are vegan or predominantly plant-based and this has garnered much attention in the benefits of a plant-based or vegan diet i.e. Tom Brady, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic. Female celebrities like Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus eating vegan diets have also likely contributed to the popularity.”
Dr Kinikoglu says he doesn’t follow celebrity influencers but rather doctors who recommend low-fat plant-based diets to their patients. One of his favourites is Dr Neal Barnard, who Kinikoglu says supports all his nutritional claims with scientific articles.
Boyacigiller recommends going over to Moda, in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district, a neighbourhood that has recently become increasingly popular with the younger generation, “to see the future.” Every restaurant there, she says, has at least one good vegan option –– “if not, it’s bad for business.” Boyacigiller foresees that this should become the norm all over Turkey in two-three years from now.
Munevver Dobur, a vegan who lives in Kadikoy, Istanbul, says she has never had a problem finding food to eat at Turkish restaurants throughout the country, especially those providing home cooked meals, zeytinyağlı (olive oil dishes) or mezes. She adds that every restaurant, chain or otherwise, has vegan options nowadays and that they are becoming increasingly available. She does make the distinction that some vegans are opposed to eating french fries at say, Burger King, because it contributes to the meat industry bottomline, but that it depends on the individual.
“I had more trouble [finding plant-based food] when I lived in a small town called Burgos in Spain for six months,” she says, “and I was a vegetarian then. Every dish seemed to contain either meat or fish.”
For Dr Kinikoglu, there is a vast difference between being a vegan and a vegetarian in that vegans don’t consume milk, yogurt, eggs and other animal byproducts while vegetarians do. “Becoming vegetarian might protect against some health problems,” he says, “but those consuming eggs, milk and dairy products may be negatively affected in the long run.”
Asked to compare India’s strict Hindu vegetarianism and veganism, Boyacigiller says she sees a similarity but elaborates that “Veganism takes this a bit further in that it is an ethical stance that opposes animal suffering in any form, hence not eating or using anything that is derived from an animal.”
She ends by saying “Eat at least one meal a day, totally vegan, and be part of the solution, rather than the problem!”