What We Will and Won’t Miss About Ankara

In the city

I’m not the type to look for signs, but I don’t ignore them either. The recent coup attempt in Turkey may or may not have been a sign, but it certainly caught our attention. As a lone incident, it was an unfortunate shock, but as a climax following series of attacks and incidents in Istanbul and Ankara, it was our cue to exit stage right. Coming here was written for us without a doubt, but staying here doesn’t seem to be. In spite of the hiccups and challenges, our year in Turkey has been an enriching experience. We’ve befriended wonderful people, saw breathtaking vistas and experienced a refined culture of genuine hospitality. We are a bit disappointed about our early departure but definitely not sad. We’ve been traveling long enough to know that some souls never really part and reunions happen in the most unforeseen ways. As nomads, you never know where we’ll turn up or return to, so this is definitely not a goodbye but moreso a “see you later”. While prepping to depart, we’ve been reflecting on the sum total of our stay and came up with the following.

Coast

WHAT WE WILL MISS:

The people: Generally speaking, Turkish people have been refreshingly hospitable to us. Their interest and curiosity about us has always seemed sincere and polite. They are endearing to children, respectful to elders, and welcoming to strangers. Other than being incredible hosts, our Turkish friends have taken cleanliness to a whole other level. At times we felt like they caught crumbs and dust before they even touched the floor and maintained impeccable homes in spite of having young children. This standard might be unattainable for us but it was pretty impressive to witness.

The country: Turkey is a really beautiful country with a variety of landscapes and geographic features. Endless mountain ranges, dense green forests, and the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean Sea are all etched in our minds vividly. Sights of interest are abundant and have been well-maintained and accessible to us. Our only regret is that we didn’t have a chance to see more and that some very religiously significant regions are challenged by instability.

The food: Oh, the food. The simplicity of fresh herbs, cold-pressed olive oil, fresh lemon juice and salt have forever changed our approach to salads. Though we generally don’t love cold foods, we’ve become smitten with a genre of dishes that are slow cooked in olive oil and served cold. Eating seasonally has introduced us to new foods like fresh figs, quinces, celery root, and a variety of vegetables grown locally. Some of our favorite food finds here were black rice, pomegranate syrup, fresh dill, dried organic apricots, and leblebi (dry roasted chickpeas).

Aegean Food

The mosques: I’ve yet to see an unkempt mosque or a substandard women’s prayer hall in Ankara. From large congregational mosques to the tiny prayer rooms in shopping centers, I’ve consistently seen efforts to maintain the beauty, cleanliness, and awe that a place of worship merits.

The fashion: While I can’t describe a traditional, Turkish style of dress, the sisters here definitely have their own flavor and unique expression of modesty. A few years ago, I made a decision to no longer buy clothes that were not designed with my customer profile in mind. So, online shopping in Turkey has been a wonderland for me. I can easily find a wide variety of suitable clothing articles that are fashionable, modest, and affordable.

Domestic production: When shopping, I prefer to buy items from as close to my locality as possible. From toothpaste to clothing to sugar-free jams, I love the plentiful opportunities to support the local economy and region.

Village Pride: Almost everyone I’ve met in Ankara mentions a “back home” where grandparents live, where parents grew up, and where they visit elders for Eid holidays. Even in the supermarkets, there’s an emphasis on foods sourced from a köy, or village, and I’ve grown to equate them with traditional, homemade goodness.

Fethiye

WHAT WE WON’T MISS:

The politics: We’re totally over the politics, the tension, and the drama. It was frustrating at times to be misunderstood when our everyday choices about diet, faith practice, and dress were seen as political statements or stances. We are on the side of piety, integrity, and humanity, wherever it is represented.

Learning Turkish: Learning the language hasn’t been easy but was essential for our day-to-day survival in Ankara. Yes, there are many words from Arabic, even French and English, but Turkish grammar was burying us alive. We absolutely loved our Turkish teacher, but we’re glad to not go any deeper down that rabbit hole for now.

The social culture: Being a fairly liberal capital, smoking and drinking are quite common in Ankara. We especially hated seeing people smoke so liberally around children or drunk in public. Similarly, the very secularized expression of Islam that we regularly encountered here lacked the soul of the faith that captured our hearts over a decade ago. The religious community here seemingly functions here as a minority, though being in a Muslim-majority country. Again, Twilight Zone experiences were common for us.

Time to go

Review: Ev Yapımı Vegan Lezzetler in Ankara

Vegan Food in Ankara

Since coming to Turkey, we’ve been inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit here. You want to start a business? Come up with a name, open a Facebook or Instagram account, and get to work. We aspire to be self-employed one day and meeting small business owners here in Ankara is teaching us a lot about the grit and dedication that it takes way before registering your company, building a website, or obtaining a business license. The most recent entrepreneur we had the pleasure of meeting is Çisem Çolak, sole chef and owner of Ev Yapımı Vegan Lezzetler, a home-based vegan cooking service.

Vegan Mantı in Ankara

For the last five years, Çisem has taken the task of vegan cooking into her own hands. Many traditional foods she grew up enjoying no longer suited her animal-free diet, so she began to adapt them. Her most popular dish, mantı, is tiny dumplings that are usually stuffed with spiced meat. Çisem, like many other vegans, missed this homemade comfort food but unlike her peers, she fashioned a vegan version for herself and made a business out of it for the last nine months. I’m amazed at how each piece is cut, folded, and stuffed with flavorful fillings like sweet potatoes, lentils, spinach and potatoes. Topped with a robust tomato sauce and oil dressing with ground herbs and sumac, we devour each bite in an instant, guiltily knowing that the painstaking process of preparing it is exponentially longer.

Vegan, Turkish sausage

Çisem’s other specialty is sucuk, a seitan version of Turkish spiced sausage. Like her mantı, she freezes and ships it to eager customers from Istanbul to Izmir and even as far as Antalya. Fortunate for Ankara’s residents, Ev Yapımı offers a broader menu for pick-up and home delivery. Cooked daily meals, desserts, and stuffed breads like börek and gözleme can all be enjoyed in the comfort of your home but, one day, I look forward to visiting Ev Yapımı when it becomes more than a home-based business but a café and restaurant all on its own.

VeganTortellini in Ankara

Complimentary samples were offered for this review.  All opinions are our own.

Review: Ege Günlüğü in Ankara

Olive oil cooking

Aegean cuisine has a reputation for being one of Turkey’s most vegan-friendly regions. Along the fertile coast, a plethora of beans and vegetables grow abundantly and are traditionally slow-cooked with cold-pressed olive oil, fresh herbs and seasonings. Red lentils and bulgur wheat are combined to make mercimek kofte, the vegan version of a ground meat burger. We have yet to visit Turkey’s Northwestern coast, but thankfully Aegean food has come to us by way of Ege Günlüğü.

Ege Cuisine in Ankara

In Armada Mall, an imposing shopping center, Ege Günlüğü is a welcomed oasis. The open dining hall sits at the end of a busy corridor with white, painted wooden furniture and soothing pastel pillows and cushions. The aqua and blue hues invoke a calmness that I don’t usually find in a packed mall. When I asked one of the managers, Maliha, about her recommendations for vegan diners, she instinctively directs me to their cold food bar where out of more than a dozen dishes, only several include yogurt and none of them include meat. Being able to see all of the entrees makes it easy to pick and point at the dishes I want to fill my platter. With the option of a büyük large plate or a küçük small plate, the choice is obvious. I want to taste as many dishes as they can fit on my plate, centered around my absent dish of yogurt.

Vegan Meal at Ege Gunlugu

Most of the dishes are Aegean versions of familiar ingredients: black-eyed peas, brown lentils, and green beans but the flavors are unique. I recognize the taste of dill, leeks, and olive oil, of course, but the others are harder to distinguish. Regardless, everything tastes fresh and wholesome. When Maliha tells me that they don’t use any frozen vegetables, I’m not surprised. As soon as their produce arrives, it must be washed, chopped, and prepped. Some of the unfamiliar dishes are a variety of green leafy dishes that I couldn’t identify, celery root, stuffed dried eggplant, and artichokes. My favorite dishes were stewed sundried tomatoes with walnuts and mercimek kofte. To complement the mostly gluten-free entrees, a bread basket full of sourdough olive oil and walnut bread rounds out the meal perfectly. The small rolls are not airy and fluffy but rather filling and mildly dense. Even though all of the zeytinyağlı (with olive oil) dishes are served cold, the hospitality was warm and satisfying.

Fresh, Aegean cuisine in Ankara

Ege Günlüğü is most popular during lunch hour, when health-conscious professionals seek out a meal that leaves them more fueled than full. With the cold bar ready and stocked every day from 10am to 10pm, anyone can grab a meal without having to wait or order hot foods from the menu if time allows.  And, with the prices so reasonable, you can easily make eating here a healthy habit.

Vegan Oasis in Armada Mall

With special thanks to Ege Günlüğü for hosting our visit.  All opinions are our own.

Hearty Vegan Finds in Istanbul

Istanbul

One of our family travel hacks is to manage our meal consumption. We pick a hotel that includes breakfast or has a kitchenette and eat out for a late lunch/early dinner. We usually carry a box of soy milk, peanuts, and dates to round out the rest. This plan worked exceptionally well for our recent trip to Istanbul where there were an abundance of vegan options to try out. I did my research beforehand because salads and hummus alone can’t sate our appetites and we were all satisfied with what we found.

Community Kitchen

Community Kitchen in Beyoğlu

Not far from the Şişhane Metro Station or the Tünel Trolley Stop, you’ll find this venue down a steep cobble-street road that feels more like home than a restaurant.  Oya is the humble owner who serves veganized traditional Turkish dishes like iskender, köfte, and lahmacun.  She also makes cold meze platters, pizzas with homemade cheese, and gluten-free desserts.  We were most impressed by the seitan she prepares from wheat and green lentils and can’t wait to order some for home delivery!

Minda

Minda Mantı & Ev Yemekleri near Taksim Square

Discovering this place was such a relief.  It was a cold, snowy night and our day’s meal was a little lighter than we anticipated.  For a night cap, we snuck into Minda after seeing fasulye or white beans on their open buffet.  We confirmed that their bulgur pilau, beans, and vegetable dishes were all etsiz or meat-free and dug in.  As the restaurant name indicates, their food is really good traditional homecooking and we couldn’t agree more.

Bi Nevi

Bi Nevi Deli (now in Etiler)

This Sunday brunch was an indulgence but so worth it.  Tempeh bacon, tofu scramble, mashed avocadoes, seitan salami, artisinal nut cheeses, seitan salami, and chia pudding.  Need we say more?  Other than delighting our taste buds thoroughly, the meal inspired me to research where they found these foods in Turkey and how to get them in my kitchen.

Parsifal

Parsifal near Taksim Square

Opened since 1996, Parsifal is staple in the veggie scene of Istanbul.  Their menu is tried and true with a variety of veggie burgers, stuffed chard leaves, and vegetable side dishes.  Save space for their vegan brownie, which is more like chocolate cake, but still a sweet end to a nice meal.

Vegan Dukkan

Vegan Dükkan near Taksim Square

Though not a restaurant, this vegan shop has been going strong for more than eight years and is well-stocked with treats, non-dairy milks, and whatever you might need to do your own cooking.  The owner, a die-hard vegan, is hospitable and warm.  We order from this shop for home delivery regularly.

If you know of any other vegan-friendly eateries, please add them to the comments.  Thanks!

 

Review: Vegisso in Ankara

Vegisso Living Room

After a particularly taxing workweek for Urbndervish, we went out on the town for a family date. Having already frequented one of Ankara’s two vegan restaurants, it was about time to visit the second. Little did we know that the term “restaurant” might have been a bit misleading. Tucked into one of downtown Ankara’s neighborhoods, we made our way to a modest basement apartment. No sign or awning indicated its location, so we relied on the address and phone number provided by Happy Cow. After walking up and down a common residential street, we finally found the home known as Vegisso.

Greeted warmly by a young brother and sister, our coats were taken and we were ushered to a long dining table where two diners were already seated. We sat beside them and perused the menu. Somewhat distracted by the artwork behind us and the cozy living room in front of us, we decided on veggie burgers, Izmir kofte meatball, and a seitan sandwich. Worried that our appetites overwhelmed the kitchen staff of one, we waited patiently for our dishes to arrive. We were encouraged when the other diners received their table settings, a bread basket, and appetizing plates of food. Careful not to stare, I couldn’t help but wonder what they ordered since their Turkish menu offered no translation. Nonetheless, the sister that welcomed us spoke enough English to make some recommendations and tell us which dishes were not available.

Vegisso Living Room

Apparently a hang-out spot for mostly college students, the business tide of Vegisso ebbs and flows with the semesters. A singular vegan saw a need and opened his home to become a haven for young vegan diners looking for a welcoming place to hang out and eat up. The décor of his space is artsy with a unique vintage style and in true college fashion, an acoustic guitar sitting in the corner. I became nostalgic for my own college days, spending late nights on secondhand furniture while my roommates strummed their guitars after cooking meals together. The same relaxed vibe is felt at Vegisso without being claustrophobic or intrusive.

Kofte Platter

The professional presentation of our food was a telltale sign that our chef wants to be taken seriously. Our fresh, crisp salads were dressed lightly with olive oil and a sprinkle of black cumin and sesame seeds. The bulgur pilau was formed in a small mold and our sandwiches were wrapped partially in paper for easy handling.

Veggie Burger

The veggie burger had the reminiscent taste of falafel, one of the menu’s offerings, and paired well with crisp cucumbers, sour pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and a homemade creamy sauce.  The French fries that came with the sandwiches were hot and crisp. We enjoyed each dish so much that we ordered a second round half-way through finishing the first.

Seitan Sandwich

As is our usual dining habit, we just drank water before our meal and enjoyed both a lunch and dinner portion’s worth of a meal. I was anxious to try their chocolate brownie but none was available on the day of our visit.

Our host and chef, Yesin, chatted with us after our meal. As a green, three-year vegan he has a refreshing zeal about his diet. His business hours are long, but his customers seem more like friends than clients. They cozily filled the space around us and entertained Moulay while we ate. Yesin’s vision is to one day open a restaurant but in true DIY fashion, he’s starting with what he has, right where he is.

Moulay and Cat

Review: Spicy Curry House in Ankara

Spicy Curry House

On a cool fall evening last month, we ventured out to try something new. Our taxi wove us through and around downtown Ankara to reach Gaziosmanpaşa or GOP. From a main road lined with high-end restaurants and boutiques, we couldn’t see our destination but another taxi driver directed us to turn the corner where we found Spicy Curry House.

The vibrant Indian décor warmed us instantly, and we were seated behind a young couple awaiting their meal. The windowsills were lined with potted plants and paintings adorned the walls. We sank into our cushioned booth and quickly scanned the vegetarian section of the menu which included a handful of vegetable curries and stewed legumes.

Pappadum

Worried that the portions would be small, we ordered generous helpings of chickpea curry, moong dal curried lentils, baigan bharta eggplant stew, and plain biryani rice. A very light and crisp pappadum wafer paired with tamarind sauce whet our appetites for the meal to come.

The spread

All of our dishes arrived to the table and we began to salivate.  Piping hot and freshly prepared, we started heaping spoons of each dish onto our plates.  I overlooked the parsley sprigs garnishing our food instead of cilantro but had to reorient myself when I tasted brown lentils mixed in with the yellow dal curry.  Undeterred, I hoped to savor flavors beyond the repertoire of my own cooking but each dish, though tasty in its own right, lacked the authentic taste of Indian cuisine. I know that it is quite common for ethnic foods to be toned down in spice to suit the local palate, but this was a bit like a reinvention of the cuisine. The exact same meal would’ve impressed me if it was served in someone’s home but for restaurant dining, I expected more.  It didn’t feel worth the cross-city trek that it took to reach the restaurant.  Nonetheless, the meal was satisfying and we looked forward to reheating our leftovers the next day.

Indian

With the dearth of Indian restaurants in Ankara, I believe that Spicy Curry House has an opportunity to remain unchallenged in the Turkish dining scene.  We didn’t meet the Algerian owner but the local manager is personable with an excellent command of English, so communicating our dietary needs was easy.  Maybe meat-eaters will leave with a different impression but our vegan palates noticeably missed the unique nuance of authentic Indian cuisine that we hope will eventually reach Ankara during our stay.

Rediscovering Queens

Beautiful Farm Day

I’m a Queens girl who loves Brooklyn.  On every visit to New York, I find myself sneaking to the PRB (People’s Republic of Brooklyn) for a taste of the vibrant culture, free activities, and delicious food.  But crossing boroughs with a baby gets taxing, so we’ve redirected our attention to Queens and have been pleasantly surprised.

Queens County Museum Farm

This lovely oasis was a convenient answer to Lil’ Z’s questions about how things grow.  Visiting an active, functional farm with animals, a farmer’s market, and a community compost program was a relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon.

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Queens Botanical Garden

This garden is patch of peace in the bustling Flushing neighborhood.  The rose and fragrance gardens were our favorite.  Take note of the free admission days and hours.

Jamaica Breeze

A new spot for veg-friendly dining has popped up in Queens.  They’re offering a refreshingly new concept for Jamaican dining in New York– a self-serve hot bar where you pay by weight.  The word buffet is a bit misleading, so be forewarned.  They consistently have one tofu dish and an ital bean stew on the hot bar.  Their rice and vegetable dishes aren’t cooked with meat, so fill up and enjoy!

 

Review: Trang Viet in Tampa

Vegan Buffet
Vietnam is one of those countries we don’t know much about and have never been to.  Food can be a nation’s ambassador but, unfortunately, our first taste of Vietnamese cuisine in Casablanca was unimpressive.  Enjoying tofu was such a welcomed treat at that time that we didn’t mind the lackluster food.  We knew that we needed to give Vietnamese food another chance and found the perfect opportunity recently in Tampa.

Trang Viet

At Trang Viet, you’ll find a simple family-owned eatery with a full omnivorous menu.  Traditional Vietnamese dishes featuring meat, as well as veganized versions are served regularly but on the second Saturday of each month, the herbivores have a special treat.  From 5:30-7pm, a delicious buffet of plant-based dishes are the featured attraction.  We arrived last Saturday only 15 minutes into the buffet and found the restaurant packed with folks of different ages, races, and ways of life feasting on a varied and filling buffet.

Starter Soup

After selecting a beverage of unsweetened iced green tea or water, we found small bowls of a coconut milk-based soup filled with pumpkin, carrots, seaweed, and mushrooms.  The next course included both winter and summer veggie-filled rolls with peanut sauce, steamed dumplings, and cabbage salad.  For our entrees, we had a tofu noodle stir-fry, grilled tofu, vegan ginger beef, tofu-stuffed squash, and seasoned vegan chicken drumsticks.  Side dishes included brown rice, white rice, and yucca root.  All of the dishes were well-seasoned and freshly prepared.  The young men serving the dishes ensured that portion sizes were controlled, in spite of being limitless.

Carrot Cake

As if the yummy meal wasn’t enough to satisfy us, small slices of iced carrot cake were brought out to cap our evening.  At $14 per adult and $7 per child, we had a great opportunity to fill our veggie bellies and sample the delights of Vietnam.  The cordial servers and efficient service made for an enjoyable meal.  It’s a shame that we have to wait another month for the buffet to return, but as long as the baby hasn’t arrived yet, we will happily put the date on our calendar and eagerly wait to feast once again.

Restaurant

Review: The Door in Queens

Casablanca

My hometown welcomed us with a cold embrace two weeks ago.  A disorganized flight check-in, courtesy of Iberia Airlines, foreshadowed a rough journey ahead.  The budget airline had us running all over Casablanca airport in search of our boarding passes, failed to communicate our vegan meal preference to the partnering airline, and had no complimentary offerings other than small cups of water to offer us onboard.  Nonetheless, we made our way to New York via Madrid and London just in time for Lil’ Z’s first snowfall and did our best to stay warm in the cold city.

First Snowfall

On our last weekend in New York my family gathered at one of our favorite restaurants—The Door—where they promise an elegant Jamaican dining experience.  Over the years they have upheld their mission by upgrading the cuisine and hospitality associated with Caribbean dining.  Many eateries operate like a glorified kitchen with inconsistent menus, long waits, and a shortage of customer service.  The Door, however, has set itself apart and was the most suitable place for our patronage.

Salad

The Door’s menu offers traditional Jamaican favorites alongside a healthy selection of alternatives.  The full gamut of jerk, curried, and stewed meat and seafood dishes sit comfortably alongside salad meals, vegetarian dishes, and plant-based side orders.  Their vegetarian selection includes brown-stewed tofu, tofu stir-fry, curried soy chunks, and ital stew.  Each dish is thoughtfully prepared and well-seasoned for both the familiar and novice palate.  Entrees are served with either soup or salad, preceded by baskets of rolls and cornbread.  The beverage selection includes mainstays like pineapple ginger drink, carrot juice, and sorrel made from dried hibiscus.

Ital Stew with Rice and Peas

Ital Stew with Rice and Peas

While some have complained that on occasion their service and food quality has fallen short, these occurrences are obviously rare since the restaurant is permanently packed on any given day.  More than their weekly jazz band or their enchanting décor, The Door succeeds at hospitality.  The mastermind behind their success is a sharp and decisive businesswoman who can be regularly seen chatting with guests in the dining hall and commanding her staff from the front annex to the kitchen.  Their mostly Jamaican and Jamaican-American staff are consistently warm, professional, and friendly.    They hosted our party of almost 20 with seamless ease, precision, and exceptional cordiality.  Admittedly, there are cheaper places to eat good food but The Door serves ambiance just as savory as their cuisine.

Brown Stew Tofu with Rice and Peas

Brown Stew Tofu with Rice and Peas

Review: La Flamme d’Istanbul in Casablanca

La Flamme

Casablanca has a strong consumer culture.  If you love shopping and food, you can have your heyday in this city.  New restaurants are the talk of the town, and the opening of La Flamme d’Istanbul was no different.  Plastered on billboards, delivery trucks, and Facebook, the new Turkish restaurant was well-marketed and their Turkish chefs became local celebrities.  We stumbled on its location during a morning stroll and I couldn’t help but grab a menu.  With my limited French food vocabulary, I successfully identified a handful of vegan dishes and was anxious to try them since I’ve always enjoyed Turkish cuisine and hospitality.

One very special friend of mine was in the neighborhood, so we planned to meet at La Flamme for lunch.  We both were riding high on anticipation and couldn’t wait to add our impressions to the growing list of rave reviews.  The sleek modern décor with colorful, hanging lanterns was inviting.  Our waiters didn’t don their red Fez hats that day but they were cordial and attentive.

Before placing our order I had two inquiries to make:  Was the lentil soup of the day vegan?  Can I have my hummus without Turkish yogurt?  Disappointingly, the soup had chicken in it but the hummus didn’t have yogurt as the menu indicated, so I proceeded to order the latter.  Lil’ Z had her heart set on French fries—a rare treat– and I added baba ghanoush to our order.  For meat-eaters, the offerings are abundant but the plant-based options were limited.   Nonetheless, I looked forward to tasting the familiar staple dishes I’ve always enjoyed.

Fries, Hummus, and Baba Ghanoush

The French fries were served in the cutest little fry basket with small dishes of ketchup and Dijon mustard.  Both the hummus and baba ghanoush looked appetizing alongside the warm, baked rounds of bread.  Once my friend’s meal arrived, we started eating and casually chatting.  As usual, our conversation was rich but at some point I realized that the food was lacking in flavor.  I would taste again and again searching for the familiar delight of Turkish cuisine but found it absent.  Though we haven’t made it to Turkey yet, we’ve enjoyed their cuisine as one of our favorites in Oman.  How could La Flamme be so off?  My friend agreed that the hummus was bland but assured me that the meat she ordered was pretty good.  “Perhaps their specialty is all things meaty”, I suggested to her while debriefing our visit.  The most satisfying part of my meal was their baklava which was lightly sweetened, filled with cinnamon and walnuts, and topped with ground pistachios.  It was the best I’ve had in a while and the only dish I would return for in the future.

Baklava