Discover more from Meze by Vidar Bergum
A little bit (of meat) goes a long way
The sustainable way of eating less meat and more veg.
Eating meat is deeply ingrained into Turkish culture. Vegetarianism, by contrast, is considered curious. Veganism? Alien entirely.
The idea of omitting meat from your diet is so incomprehensible to most Turks, they struggle to understand what it actually means. Even at restaurants, “vegetarian” is often confused with “vegetable based”. Vegetarian friends are routinely offered lentil soup (made with chicken stock), bean stew (with small pieces of meat) or even chicken dishes (the Turkish word for meat doesn’t usually include poultry) as vegetarian options when eating out.
All in good faith, of course. They really do think they’re being helpful and accommodating. A quick look at the vegetable chapter of the brilliant Turkish cookbook Timeless tastes is probably indicative of what many Turks consider vegetarian (again, conflating the term with “vegetable dishes”):
Turkey x meat
This relationship to meat goes back centuries. Turks came from Central Asia, where they relied on a diet of meat, yoghurt and grains for survival. Vegetables were rare. As they ventured west, they eventually settled in mountainous Anatolia, where the diet remains heavy on meat, dairy and grain.
Nevertheless, centuries at the heart of agricultural history has made Turkish cuisine a rich one. An abundance of vegetables and greens have long since become a crucial part of the local food culture, particularly in the western parts of the country. Legumes are widely eaten everywhere.
Contrary to popular belief, however, Turks don't eat kebab for dinner every day. In fact, they eat way less meat than their European and American counterparts.
The explanation is as simple as it is, perhaps, sinister. Red meat was – and remains – expensive.
Kebabs and feasts of entire animals have always been reserved for special occasions. Everyday cuisine is mostly based on vegetables, grains and legumes.
My partner often recounts how his late grandmother would add a handful of minced meat to almost anything she was cooking. Green beans, okra, potatoes or chickpeas – they were all immensely improved by a small amount of meat. Aside from the occasional köfte (Turkish meatballs), anything more meaty than that was considered too extravagant for their means.
The availability of red meat has certainly increased in modern times, but is still nowhere near that of Western countries. And though reliable statistics are hard to come by, it appears the consumption of red meat has fallen again every year since the onset of the current cost of living crisis in 2018.
But, as the story of my partner’s grandmother makes clear, the luxury of red meat is nothing new. This shows in the cuisine, which makes expert use of legumes, vegetables and grains. Often, like with my partner’s grandmother’s cooking, with a little meat added. And sometimes completely vegetarian or vegan.
How to eat less meat, Turkish edition
If you’re among those who’ve tried to cut back on meat over the past decade or so, you probably know how difficult it can be once the initial enthusiasm wears off. Our bodies are wired to crave meat, it’s a huge part of our food cultures and rituals and – let’s be honest – damn delicious.
I’m not here to convince you to eat less meat or go vegetarian. I’ve never observed meatless Mondays, veganuary or in any other way restricted my diet. Well-meaning though they may be, I find recipes by the most enthusiastic advocates of such often, sadly, over-promise (“you’ll never know it doesn’t have meat in it!”) and under-deliver (the absence of meat is all too often accompanied by an absence of flavour). The best veggie recipes are, in my experience, much more likely to be found in less known food cultures or more subdued authors, like Anna Jones or Heidi Swanson, than those trying to “veganify” existing dishes.
So, I’ve spent my time learning how to get more flavour out of vegetables instead. I've learned to use meat in a way where a little goes a long way.
The cuisines I've immersed myself in over the past decade or so have plenty to offer here, as have vegetable-forward food writers like Yotam Ottolenghi, whose book Plenty changed my approach to vegetables more than any other. But, as I’ve learned since moving to Istanbul, even Ottolenghi’s recipes are based on long standing traditions. Recipes and flavour combinations that have been perfected over generations, centuries even. With an excess of vegetables and big chunks of meat being reserved for special occasions, the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean have had centuries to figure out how to make vegetables sing.
To me, this is a much more sustainable way of essentially eating less meat and more vegetables. By making vegetable dishes that are so delicious there just isn’t space for meat on the menu every day. By making a little meat go a long way, whether as part of bean stews, dolmas or meatballs. That still leaves room for the occasional (guilt-free) kebab or steak.
And you know what? This form of cooking isn’t just delicious. It’s also far less stressful. The meal doesn’t depend on cooking that huge piece of steak to perfection. A small mistake won’t destroy an expensive ingredient. This is food that’s simple to make, with plenty of room for errors, adaptations and freestyling.
Just what you want on any old Wednesday or Thursday.
Possibly my favourite store cupboard meal. I’ve always got potatoes and carrots to hand, and usually keep peas in the freezer. With flavour from the meat and delicious Lebanese spices, this is a true midweek delight with rice alongside.
Tekke çorbası is a little known local speciality of Turkish cuisine, and I have no idea why. This might be the most delightful tomato soup I’ve ever made! The key is using a generous amount of tomato and sweet pepper paste, a little bit of meat and simple, but homemade, pasta.
This is one of the dishes often offered to vegetarian friends in Istanbul. While a vegetarian version of this dish is just as common (recipe forthcoming!), the meat version is a masterclass in using meat for flavour while letting other ingredients make up the bulk of the dish. Keep this one in mind for a rainy day.
It’s only been a few weeks since I shared this recipe in another newsletter, but I couldn’t resist including it again. With the stuffing vegetables at peak season in the northern hemisphere, there’s no better time to make them than right now.
🔜 Coming Friday for paying subscribers:
With a history dating back to Ottoman palace kitchens, these meatballs make use of several unique preparation steps that make them among the juiciest and tastiest meatballs you can find. Cooked rice make them light and juicy, keeping all of the meat flavour while stretching the meat to make a lot more meatballs. Part of the meat is fried before shaping the meatballs, and the final meatballs are rolled in flour and egg before cooking.
The result is tender and juicy meatballs that – unusually – are as tasty at room temperature as they are fresh from the pan.
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With best wishes from Istanbul,
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