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.