On our way to the supermarket during Istanbul’s partial lockdowns in late 2020, we were surprised to see a new shop in our favorite building on Rıza Paşa Sokak – the street where the “nostalgic Moda tramway” makes it way down toward the sea. The bottom section of the decadent stone facade is now painted with a bright mural of lemons and leaves, and it stands proud between a modern building and a car park. In a meat-lovers’ paradise like Turkey, the sign on the door reads like a joke: “Limonita vegan kasap” – a vegan butcher.
“The oxymoron is real!” laughs Deniz Yoldaç Yalçın, the blue-eyed girl who makes the sucuk (sausage), burgers and other delicacies lined up in the fridges and at the counter. But of course, all of them are rigorously vegan and made mostly with a mix of legumes, beans and spices. “Despite our culinary culture being so focused on meat, I have never eaten meat in my life,” Deniz confesses. “So, after experimenting and cooking with vegan produce for years, I thought I should share what I learned. That’s how the Limonita adventure began.” It’s a curiosity indeed how Deniz has so meticulously been able to mimic the tastes of classic Turkish charcuterie without ever sampling the originals themselves. But Turkey’s array of specific spice blends for various meat dishes – sucuk, pastırma (cured beef), tantuni (pan-fried shredded beef), to name a few – does much of the work in bringing the alternatives to life.
Deniz and her husband, Akın Yalçın, joined forces in November 2019 to offer vegan dishes at the first Limonita café, in the Kozyatağı neighborhood of Kadıköy. One of their most loyal customers, surgeon and academic Türker Yücesoy, approached them with his roommate Sefa Çolak about opening another location in Moda. Two years later, a Limonita café arrived on Rıza Paşa Sokak, with the kasap a few doors down. “Being from Gaziantep, I know only too well how meat and its derivatives are a staple of the Turkish diet and cuisine,” Türker tells us. “I have been vegan for four years now, and I would never go back. Believe me, I was one of those guys who loves to grill and eat meat, lamb, anything… But I started to be more aware of all the repercussions of eating meat – last but not least the treatment of animals.”
Seeing his passion for the topic, it isn’t hard to understand how this way of thinking has been spreading across Istanbul, especially in the last five years. At the risk of offending long-time die-hards, there’s no denying, veganism has exploded on the scene alongside dramatically Westernized imports like yoga. We’ve often wondered how students and young people – usually the first to pick up new trends – can afford this kind of lifestyle, being that vegan meals are often only found at specialty outlets that are usually quite pricey.
But Türker waves his hand at exclusive, trendy vegan food. “It is very easy to find vegan products in Istanbul,” he says enthusiastically. “Just a trip to the local farmers’ market and you can buy cheaper and healthier legumes, veggies, mushrooms and many naturally vegan stuffs.” He says going to vegan restaurants or specialty stores isn’t necessary, and that many vegans on social media are trying to highlight just how affordable – and sustainable – a lifestyle it can be. Thanks to Türker, we learned about a number of products at bargain supermarkets in Turkey that are vegan as a “side effect” of companies trying to save money by avoiding eggs and dairy during production.
This mentality is easily carried over in Turkish cooking as well, he adds. Despite being very meat-centered, most Turkish dishes are easily “veganizable,” especially during lean times. The clever marketing of çiğ köfte (a dish typically made with raw meat but now frequently imitated with a bulgur wheat mash) as a “vegan snack” immediately comes to mind. This “veganizability” is what gave Türker and the Yalçıns the inspiration for a “vegan kasap,” he says. “It is the furthest thing from a real butcher, but you can find basically anything you find at a standard butcher.”
How, exactly? In fact, we were in awe when we saw that the kasap offers vegan mantı, lahmacun (minced beef on flatbread), kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines), salam (salami) and even içli köfte, a complex dish from Eastern Turkey made with a crust of fine bulgur enclosing a stuffing of ground meat, onions and spices. We couldn’t believe how similar the vegan burgers and hot dogs we ordered looked to their meaty originals. As impressive were the vegan dairy products, like smoked cheddar and butter, and even vegan mayo, that are on offer.
A creative by profession, Deniz is the master behind all the recipes both at the kasap and the cafés. “We don’t want to change the menu too often, or even weekly, but I’m always open to creating different dishes and making little changes. Anything can inspire me, from a picture I see to a word I hear,” she says. “With my lifelong experience as a vegan, I have had the chance to perfect my staple items, and I think they are good on their own – not just for strictly vegan people. We are not here to convince anyone to become vegan, but we started this journey with the idea of being of use to our society.”
“We are not here to convince anyone to become vegan, but we started this journey with the idea of being of use to our society.”
We wondered if this is just a fleeting trend or if veganism is here to stay – even amongst a country of meat-lovers – but Türker is convinced that this is just the beginning. “Between 2018 and 2019, the number of vegans in the world jumped up by 11 times!” Türker says, his eyes shining. “This year, with the pandemic and natural disasters everywhere, people have started to realize the importance of respecting our planet, as well as our bodies. Also, more and more people are aware that meat is the biggest source of pollution and global warming, so they are trying to reduce consumption,” he adds.
“In general, we are not focused on making profit, more on showing people that there is an alternative to the mainstream diet and that it is affordable.” More importantly, though, “we want this to be a place where people feel accepted, no matter whether they are vegan or not,” Türker says. “We want it to be a peaceful corner in the chaos of the city.” They even have plans to host workshops and vegan cooking classes in the future.
A couple of buildings down the road from the kasap, Limonita’s Moda restaurant is in the back garden of a historical red brick house, an intimate and quiet oasis in the busy neighborhood. It is strewn with sculptures by Limonita co-partner Sefa. Eager to try the restaurant’s prepared meals, we arrived with two friends – a Kurd and a Spaniard, both stubborn and hardcore meat-eaters.
The vegan burger we ordered looked like it was made from a real meat patty, and was neither too dry nor too mushy. The sausage had the exact spicy taste of a wurst. The verdict? The pair were happy with the taste and didn’t feel like they had somehow become part of a strange cult. They even vowed to make a future visit to try the vegan lahmacun and tantuni.