I know it’s meant to be enticing. But the scent of roasting meat on a stick — a staple ingredient of the Turkish street-food doner kebab, found in many popular Tokyo neighborhoods — is enough to have me crossing the street just to avoid the wafting smell, or else holding my breath as I walk by the friendly vendor.
I lament the fact that I have become accustomed to react this way, and certainly don’t wish to offend anyone’s tastes, but I know Turkish food is so much more than doner kebabs. So I set out to remind myself of this the other day in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood.
With a history that traces far back into the Ottoman Empire, Turkish cuisine is full of rich Mediterranean and near-East spices such as cumin, mint, oregano and sesame, and though dishes vary by region across Turkey, they all make good use of olive oil and vegetables such as eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.
The menus at Turkish restaurants are course-friendly, encouraging diners to start with bread dipped in spicy pastes, move on to a soup or perhaps pasta or rice, and work their way to various main dishes. Though egg or lentils can be the basis for a main dish, in many places (perhaps especially in meat-loving Japan) the focus is on lamb or other meats in the form of shish kebab.
This course style of eating can be a boon for vegetarians since we can happily get our fill on a variety of appetizers, or meze as this collection of small plates is called.
Cappadocia (formerly called Antalya; 2-14-14 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; 050-5570-4193) features meze plates that include a choice of six pastes for dipping, eating alone or as toppings, that are all vegetarian. Ingredients include tantalizing combinations of chickpeas, spinach, yogurt, tomato and other items mashed up in smooth and spicy mixtures and topped with olive oil.
The cucumber and garlic yogurt sauce, or cacik, was filling on its own and did not disappoint as one of my all-time favorite Mediterranean dishes.
Cheese and olives can be enjoyed by the platefuls, though I had to save room for soup, green peppers filled with savory rice, and then a Turkish pizza. The frenzy doesn’t have to stop there as you can go for some famous Turkish coffee (strong and aromatic) and ice cream (uniquely stretchy and, of course, sweet).
Thankfully, Turkish cuisine can be enjoyed at many places around the city.
Ankara (formerly Anatolia; 2-19-20 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3486-7449) and Istanbul (3-8-2 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 050-5518-7180; www.istanbul.co.jp) are two other decent options for good Turkish dishes.
While Japan’s love for all things kebab shows no sign of stopping, I’ll stick to enjoying meze until I find an excuse to go to Istanbul.
Ananda Jacobs is a musician and actress in Tokyo (www.anandajacobs.com). She has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than 20 years.