We recently returned home from our global travels, and in many ways our trip was a gastronomic tour of Turkish and Israeli cuisine. We tried our best to sample as many mezes, main dishes, desserts, and other foods that we could fit into our stomachs within a 3-week time span. We were able to stay relatively svelte and fit thanks to walking an average of 8 miles each day. Our goal during the trip was to try all the authentic cultural foods that these two countries offer, and of course, to stay healthy. At times, Marnina was forced to expand her diet either because: 1) a Crohn’s-friendly dish was not available; 2) the language barrier caused confusion that led to Marnina biting into a food stuffed with seeds; or 3) she could not resist the temptation of ordering an authentic dish that contained some form of food that might upset her GI tract. However, thanks to proper plannning (over-the-counter medications, antibiotics, flushable wipes), Marnina was prepared for the worst. Luckily, neither of us got sick from the food and water in either country. It turns out that the water is unsafe to drink in Turkey (even for natives) so bottled water was incredibly cheap.
Having returned from our trip, we feel more well-versed in Turkish and Israeli cuisine, and we would like to share some of our observations and tips on how to survive the two countries if you have Crohn’s Disease or colitis. Many of our suggestions can be applied to other cuisines as well. We first provide an in-depth description of each cuisine, and then we list some challenges that we encountered with the cuisines.
Turkish cuisine varies across the country, and so we can only speak of food in a few cities and regions we visited (Istanbul, Cappadocia and Ephesus). We noticed a lighter use of spices, such as Turkish chili pepper, parsley, cumin, black pepper, paprika, mint, and thyme. The cuisine is Middle Eastern in many ways; it is rich in vegetables, olive oil, and fish. At the same time, the Turks infuse their cuisine with traditional Turkish elements, such as yogurt. Yogurt can accompany almost all meat dishes (kebabs, etc.), vegetable dishes, and mezes. One of the most common Turkish drinks, ayran, is made from yogurt (the drink is a mixture of plain yogurt and water).
Turkish tea and coffee are found just about everywhere too. It seems like the Turks drink tea or coffee throughout the day, regardless of the temperature outside. Outside every shop was a small table and chairs. In the late afternoon, storefronts would be filled with owners schmoozing, drinking tea and playing Backgammon. You would never know that they actually had work to do!
Breakfast: A typical Turkish breakfast consists of a white cheese (similar to feta), butter, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, jam (they love their cherry jelly), yogurt, and sometimes sausage.
Frequently used ingredients in Turkish specialties include: lamb, beef, chicken, fish, eggplant, green peppers, onions, garlic, lentils, beans, and tomatoes. Nuts, especially pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, have a special place in Turkish cuisine.
Bread: We were served a crusty white bread at almost every restaurant meal, and it is similar to a baguette. The bread was definitely not the highlight of any meal, but it was useful as a pick-me-up after a long day of walking. Many breads that are sold on the streets are covered in sesame seeds (such as simit). We found that the pastries that are sold on the streets are more “bread-like” than “pastry-like.”
Meat: The Turks use a lot of meat in their cooking, and we often saw combinations of ground meat and vegetables (beans with ground meat, spinach with ground meat). There is also a lot of chicken and lamb, and because Turkey is a Muslim country, pork plays almost no role in Turkish cuisine. Kebabs are very common too, and they are served grilled or skewered, but can also be found in stews. The meat often comes mostly unseasoned and the portions are smaller than the typical meat portion in the U.S. Doner Kebab is a popular street food. It is a roll of roasted meat on a vertical spit, and it is usually either beef, chicken, or lamb.
Fish: There is a heavy emphasis placed on fresh and local seafoodl, and it is almost always served as a whole fish with bones. It is usually very lightly seasoned and is served with a lemon (the lemon is crucial to help further season the fish).
Produce: Salads, often consisting of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber are very commonly served as a side dish. Tomato, cucumber, eggplant, and green runner beans are vegetables that are commonly found in mezes. Fig, dates, and dried fruits are prevalent as well. We noticed that the produce tastes much better than in the U.S.
Dessert: Turkey specializes in certain dough-based desserts, such as baklava and kunafeh, and they also produce a huge variety of Turkish delight (candy made of starch and sugar, and which often contain different types of chopped nuts bound by the starchy gel).
Presence of Other Cuisines: We noticed there was very little cusisine other than Turkish cuisine. There was an occasional Asian restaurant, but Asian restaurants and other international cuisines did not have a strong presence in the country. Turkey is very proud of their cuisine to say the least.
Challenges: Many of the vegetarian dishes include beans, and the occasional use of raw vegetables, whole grains (i.e. bulgur), and nuts made it difficult for Marnina to sample some of the mezes and main dishes. Sesame seeds are also commonly found on breads. Many of the Turkish desserts are made with figs, dates, and nuts, and they are also very heavy (lots of desserts with phyllo dough). The most common form of Turkish Delight is full of nuts, wich was very limiting for Marnina.
Israeli cuisine incorporates Middle Eastern and Mediterranan cusisines, with such foods as falafel, hummus, shakshouka, couscous, and pita. Olives, chickpeas, certain grains, beans, dairy products, fish and veggies such as tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini are promiment in Israeli cuisine too. Lots of fresh herbs and spices are used to enhance the tastes of the main ingredients. Common herbs and spices include mint, lemon, garlic, and rosemary. Similar to Turkey, mezes are common, and in Israel they often consist of a number of small dishes: cheese, nuts, various salads and dips, hummus, pickles, and also more substantial items, such as grilled meats.
Bread: Israelis love their pita and laffa, which are generally very soft and fresh. Pita and laffa are really used as a vehicle to eat other foods, but the bread is tasty by itself too. The Israeli version of a bagel is long and oblong-shaped, and covered in za’atar or sesame seeds.
Meat: The meat is much more seasoned compared to Turkey, thanks to ample seasonings, as well as sauces that are added to the meat dishes. Shwarma meat is cooked on a rotating spit, and the cooked meat is shaved off and stuffed into a pita and served with various toppings, such as pickles, tahina, hummus, cut vegetable salads, eggplant, onion, and different sauces.
Presence of Other Cuisines: While there are few exotic cuisines that can be found in Israel, there are plenty of Asian, Italian, and American restaurants. We had delicious sushi at a restaurant in Haifa called Japanika. Who would have guessed?
Fish: Fish in Israeli is not as common as it is in Turkey. There is more of an emphasis on meat and we focused more on eating the meat because we could (it was kosher!). Fish is used more on Israeli toasts (basically a toasted panini) in the form of plain tuna. Fresh fish is also often available in restaurants and it is usually served whole, in the Mediterranean style, grilled and dressed with some lemon juice.
Produce: Similar to Turkey, the Israelis love their cucumber and tomato salad, and eggplant is a common veggie. Other commonly used vegetables include onions, tomato, eggplant, okra, spinach, cabbage, and carrots. Tomato is the most ubiquitous ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. It is used fresh in a variety of salads, cooked in almost every stew, and is often grilled with kebab. Interestingly enough, we hardly saw any blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries in either cuisine (Marnina avoids these fruits anyway).
Challenges: There are more cooked veggies in Israel, so Marnina had less trouble finding a dish she could eat. We ate a lot of street food (mostly schwarma), and whenever we ordered schwarama in a pita, it was an incredibly large amount of food for one person, but we could not resist eating it all. The quantity of food eaten at these meals would often send Marnina to the bathroom. Some of the mezes and shwarma + falafel toppings are raw, such as cabbage or carrots, so Marnina was extra careful about identifying raw vs. cooked foods (and avoiding the raw foods!).
Desserts: Similar to Turkey, many of the desserts tended to be heavy and they often contained nuts.
- A Middle Eastern diet tends to be high in protein (chicken, fish, beef) which is incredibly beneficial to someone with IBD. Take advantage of the protein!
- Avoid bulgur, lentils and kasha if fiber bothers you, and opt for rice and/or couscous as the base grain for your dish
- Enjoy the wonderfully flavored red meat in schwarma, kibbeh, and/or kebab, but do not overdo it!
- Red meat’s high fat content makes it hard to digest, and can lead to indigestion and stomach pain. Sometimes, you can find chicken or turkey schwarma (which should sit better), so be sure to ask for clarification in a restaurant
- Middle Eastern food tends to be “healthy.” It generally utilizes large amounts of raw vegetables, sesame seeds, dates and chickpeas. All of these foods would be considered “healthy” for a normal individual. As you may or may not know, living with IBD often means avoiding a lot of what is typically healthy. Just be wary of these raw ingredients when eating Middle Eastern food
- Enjoy falafel in small quantities – the high fiber content in chickpeas and the oil used to fry the falafel can be a dangerous combination!
Stay tuned for a blogpost on our Turkish cuisine cooking class!