Turkey, Travel… and Thanksgiving

My fellow New Yorkers are preoccupied with turkey this week, since it’s Thanksgiving on Thursday, but I’m obsessed with an entirely different Turkey. My trip there was memorable for many reasons. The sheer volume of ancient Greco-Roman sites floored me, even though I’d previously read that Turkey has more Roman ruins than Italy. I visited a few (Ephesus, Pergamum, Aphrodisias, and Hierapolis) and was amazed again and again by their beauty and grandeur. I saw great museums (Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum was simply incredible), and magnificent houses of worship, such as Sultanahmet’s Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (the latter was a church, then a mosque, and now a museum, but it’s a place of beauty whatever you call it). There is so much to see in Turkey, and I only scratched the surface by visiting the Aegean Coast and Istanbul in my 12 days there.

On the dining front, Turkey presents a challenge for the gluten-intolerant. Bread is such a staple of the diet, and wheat sneaks into a wide range of products (for example, the rice cakes I found in supermarkets contained wheat). Restaurant menus are filled with dishes that contain wheat, from stews and soups to kebabs that are wrapped in a wheat shell. However, there was one very important factor that made dining in Turkey possible for me: the Turkish people I met were wonderful hosts, and everyone — from the busiest restaurant to the simplest cafe — was willing to go out of their way to help me dine safely.

I also had the good fortune to correspond with — and later meet — Oya Özden, the founder and president of the Living With Celiac Association of Turkey. She sent me a celiac disease information card, written in Turkish, that I could show to chefs and other restaurant staff. She also gave me some general guidelines about dining in Turkey. Some of her tips:

  • Question everything you eat, because flour is used so much in Turkish cuisine
  • Mezes, or appetizers, are prepared in different ways in different restaurants; the simple artichoke and olive oil meze you had in one spot may have flour added to it in another
  • Rice pilav is common on menus, but beware — it often has orzo pasta mixed in with it (the pasta is sometimes much darker than the rice, but I also saw versions where the difference in color was subtle and would be easy to miss)
  • Grilled fish served without sauce is a safe choice, but beware of cross-contamination from kofta (small meatballs made with wheat) that could be cooked on the same grill

The lesson was to be vigilant, particularly because wheat is used so commonly that restaurant staff might overlook it. I learned that the hard way on my first night in Turkey, when I was accidentally ‘glutened’ by the dining room of the small hotel I stayed at in Selçuk. My mistake was in taking the word of a staff member who was a native English speaker (since my Turkish is very limited, I thought I was on safe ground explaining my dietary restrictions to someone who spoke the same language). She assured me that the rice pilav was just rice. When the plate was set in front of me, I noticed that the rice had slightly darker bits of… something… mixed in. “Are you sure this is just rice? There’s no pasta in this?” I asked, and was reassured that it was rice. One bite later and I knew that there was more than just rice in the dish. Orzo pasta, as it turned out.

It was a disappointing way to start the trip, but it was a good reminder to proceed very cautiously. Everywhere else I ate, for the rest of the trip, did come up with great gluten-free fare for me — and you’ll be hearing more about that in the weeks to come. In the meantime, happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. And for readers who are celebrating their first gluten-free Thanksgiving, check out this excellent post from Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl.

8 thoughts on “Turkey, Travel… and Thanksgiving

  1. I am to travel with a 13th years old coeliac girl in Istanbul in ten days. I read your article and tried the website but I didi not find a mail address.
    Could you give me a mail contact with the association and the woman you contacted to have the Turkish translation of the main ingredients we need to avoid?
    Thank you,

    Anne Sanfilippo

  2. Dear Anne,

    The e-mail address is on the website, but it’s hard to find for those who don’t speak Turkish. (I don’t speak Turkish either, but my approach is to press every button till I find what I’m looking for). It’s under “Iletisim” on the site (look near the top-right side of the homepage): info@colyak.org.tr

    Hope that you enjoy your trip. Please let us know how it goes!
    Best wishes,

  3. Dear Hilary, This article was so timely and I am so grateful for it. I am traveling to Turkey with Elderhostel, and was assured I could find whatever I need at the buffets we will be having. After reading your article, I will know much better what to look for. I also tried to find the e-mail address of Oya, In order to get some of the celian cards in Turkish and am glad you showed it in the above response. Also, I will now know to press every button until I find what I am looking for in an unfamiliar website.
    I sometimes feel like I’m just nuts to try to travel with celiac, and dairy intolerance and other allergies. It is quite comforting to hear someone else taking on these challenges and enjoying their life. Thanks. Kathy

  4. thank u so much, i’ll be in istanbul for a touch-and-go weekend this week, you really help me and my coeliac disease.
    mail me when you move to rome 😉

  5. I’m going to spend a few days in Istanbul and I’ll be very pleased if you could suggest me some gluten free restaurants or some gluten free food that I can order from the menu. If you need any advise about gluten free in Italy, don’t hesitate to ask. Best regards. Sandra Ghironi

  6. Hilary, thanks for sharing a bunch of really useful tips. I also admire your determination and courage to meet locals! Being a vegetarian myself I know what it takes to travel and look forward to the new flavors but needing to be rather conscious with your choices. I do food walking tours in Istanbul and recently had a client following gluten-free diet: we had great time and as an outcome I wrote an article with some helpful tips to savor Istanbul gluten-free. Wonder about your thoughts.

    @Sandra, there is not much on the gluten-free restaurants but you may want to check my blog post (above) for the names of particular dishes that are both local and gluten-free and the types of places you’ll be sure to find them.

  7. Hello and thank you for the info in your article. We’re traveling from the US to Adapazari and Istanbul with 2 kids this summer, and your article makes me hopeful that there are gf options in Turkey. Our dietary restrictions are gluten, dairy and soy free. Do you know someone who can help recommend certain foods and/or restaurants? Also, my daughters’ favorite food is doner with rice. Do you know if the are made with dairy or gluten in Turkey?
    Thank you for your help!
    P.S. I sent an e-mail to Oya Ozden but it returned undelivered. Do you know if this is the right e-mail for her: oozden@ixir.com

  8. I am moving to Ankara in Jan and planning on living in Turkey for years. I have Celiac disease and I am wondering if my 1 year old daughter does also, so I don’t give her gluten either. I would love to make as many helpful connections on this area as possible. Your articles are very helpful! Thank you so much. Do you have an email for Oya that I can have? I looked on the website but couldn’t find it. Thank you very much!

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