Third Culture, and Then Some

Greetings dear readers, from the hallowed lands on which this blog was in fact originally founded (fun fact); Egypt. As I write these words I am halfway into my first visit back in just over three years. This post comes as a result of the inner struggle and range of emotions I’ve experienced since being back. I apologize for the fact that it is mostly comprised of my musings on being an outsider to your own culture and has little to do with veganism per se, so if that doesn’t interest you please feel free to skip this one. I will add however that it is an extremely important subject to me, and I hope that by discussing it I can in some way shed light on it that may comfort others who find themselves similarly afflicted.

Now for those of you aren’t familiar with my somewhat confusing back story, I’m what most people would refer to as a third culture kid. Both of my parents and my entire extended family are originally Egyptian, but I was born and raised in the Kingdom of Bahrain where I lived up until I was 17. I attended university and worked in the UK for 4 years and am now back to living permanently in Bahrain.

Growing up in the Arabian gulf my exposure to Egyptian culture was limited to my own household and yearly month-long visits to Egypt spent between Cairo and Alexandria where we would visit relatives and travel around the country. My parents always lamented the fact that my brother and I spoke English before we spoke Arabic as children, and our cousins never failed to point out the mistakes in our broken Egyptian accents, but we paid no mind and were happy all the same.

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In my early years I never felt like an expatriate in Bahrain. We had tons of Egyptian family friends, and the British primary school I attended comprised of students from a list of nationalities more diverse than the UN itself. I made friends with kids from all over the world; India, the UK, Pakistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, The Philippines – you name it.

When I moved schools (to what was eventually the American high school I graduated from) I was slapped in the face with a dose of Bahraini culture in the form of a not-so-diverse student body that, for the most part, took pleasure in singling out students that didn’t quite fit in the cookie cutter mould. I quickly learned that speaking in my native Egyptian Arabic dialect was a no-go, that my long curly hair was considered freakish and “weird”, and that the expressive reading techniques that I had been encouraged to use in my old school would get me nothing but merciless taunting.

Fast forward a few years and I had come into my own. By middle school, I had a great group of friends, most of whom were more like myself – highly westernized Arab expats or mixed Bahrainis. We spoke English 99 percent of the time, listened to American bands, worshipped British TV shows and dressed a little less conservatively than most of our schoolmates. My friends and I can all attest that we had a great high school experience – this isn’t one of those stories. I’m also happy to report that as we got older our student body became much more diverse and tolerant in terms of bullying – but to say that I felt completely comfortable with my cultural identity would be a lie. When I did speak Arabic, I spoke Bahraini Arabic almost exclusively, even, ironically at times to some of my Arabic teachers who were fellow Egyptians. The possibility that I would be singled out, teased or mocked for speaking differently was too great a risk for me. But anyways, I digress.

Moving on to the formative years of University. I spent four years studying and working in the United Kingdom. Cue another culture shock from all angles – weather, food, language and socializing to name a few. My British friends couldn’t for the life of them understand why I spoke with a quasi-American accent (the explanation that all my high-school teachers were mostly American or Canadian didn’t seem to suffice), or why I wasn’t covered from head to toe having hailed from an island just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. I didn’t understand why Brits seemed to love queues more than life itself, or how anyone could touch marmite with a ten foot pole.

That said I integrated pretty well eventually and left the UK with priceless memories and life experiences that I will always cherish. But what, you may wonder, became of my already withering cultural identity after being abroad for so long? The answer is; not much.

During the summer of my penultimate year of university I spent close to a month in Egypt to renew my student visa for the UK. It was odd being back, at that age, to a place that felt so far from being home in every sense of the word. A place that was neither Bahrain – the country I’d grown up in and become accustomed to spending summers in, nor was it England, my new “home” and current place of domicile. My Arabic was as rusty as ever, and I hadn’t the slightest idea on what the socio-cultural norms had morphed in to, particularly hot off of the revolution that had taken place earlier that year in January 2011. Add on top of it the fact that I was just on the cusp of transitioning into veganism, and transitioning out of restrictive eating habits, I don’t think I possibly could’ve felt like more of an outsider.

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I stumbled, fell and found my footing during that trip. I vowed to make a change and channeled all my energy into trying to “fit in”. I read Arabic books and newspapers, watched Egyptian talk-shows with my family and even forced myself out of my comfort zone by volunteering to attend social functions and visits with my mom that I would usually opt out of. I was practically glued to twitter, and kept myself informed on all things related to the ongoing revolution and protests. By the end of the trip, I had developed a new love and connection to my culture that I had never really had a chance to experience before. I even found myself struggling to switch back to speaking in English once I got back to university – definitely a first.

Following that visit, my absence of three years can be attributed to graduating from university, and settling into a new job and life back in Bahrain. Any time off I had I spent traveling to obscure corners of the world and needless to say my travel plans hardly ever coincided with my parents’ semi-regular visits back to Egypt. So when it came time to plan a trip this September, for a family wedding, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. My anxiety mounted as the trip grew closer and rather than deal with what may befall me I simply ignored it until it was time to get on the plane.

The second I landed, I found myself, once again, feeling like an absolute stranger in what was supposed to be my home country. Sure I may hold the same little green passport, and sport the same signature curly hair as many of my fellow countrymen and women, but the similarities ended there. I walked through the airport dumbfounded – confused and worried at the most insignificant details like whether or not I could fill out a landing card in English or if I could board a shuttle bus without paying a fare. I wasn’t dressed outrageously, but people took one look at me and could instantly tell I wasn’t from there.

I had a long layover at the domestic terminal before I got on to my flight to meet my mom and brother in Hurghada, a resort-type area by the Red Sea. I spent most of it people watching, silently observing, like a goldfish in a tank staring out at a room full of people; although ironically I would also liken how I felt during those moments to a fish out of water.

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As I grow older this feeling only seems to magnify, and torment me further. The feeling that I don’t truly belong…anywhere. The feeling that my ethnicity and cultural identity are so completely disconnected from one another. Someone once told me that your home town is where you spent the majority of your life, or in other words where you grew up. I suppose if I had to pick anywhere that feels most like “home” to me, it would be Bahrain – in the sense that I feel comfortable there. It’s familiar. All my childhood memories are tied to it, most of my close friends still live there, and I’ve built my career there thus far. I know my way around the roads, and I can tell you in a split second what all the good restaurants and places of interest are.

But when I look at what actually ties me to Bahrain I realize that the only thing keeping me there is my job and consequent work permit. Without it I would plain and simply be asked to leave the country, being far too old now to be a dependent on either of my parents’ work permits, and not having a Bahraini passport. (For the record, I have applied for one twice; once with my family and once individually, to no avail as of yet). So how could home be a place where I would no longer be welcome if the day came that I was suddenly unemployed? That fact in itself is pretty unsettling, and something that I have to grapple with on a daily basis.

Furthermore, despite the fact that I am obviously privy to socio-cutural norms, speak the local dialect and understand local customs and traditions, at the end of the day, I’m just not Bahraini. I will never be treated as an equal to a local – not at a social gathering, not in a business meeting, nor when trying to buy property or even establish my own company.

As for Egypt, I have always maintained, from a very young age, that while I immensely enjoy visiting – I could never live there. Partly because I’ve become such an outsider and am so disconnected from cultural norms but largely because I’ve grown accustomed to a standard of living that I wouldn’t be able to easily replicate. Things like a tax-free income, driving my own car, an easy commute to work, decent air quality and even the ability to be mobile and feel safe as a young single woman walking the streets are all aspects of my admittedly cushy life that I would have to give up.

So the question remains – where is home and what is my true cultural identity?

I have no definitive answers for either – but what I do know is this: I am extremely fortunate to have been exposed to and influenced by so many different cultures from such a young age. I’m also very lucky to have grown up in a safe and liberal country – a rarity in a region that has become infamous for it’s instability and tumult in recent years. I’m immensely grateful for having had the opportunity to live and study abroad. I’ll never take for granted how that experience shaped me and helped me evolve into the person that I am today. I’m also conscious that I have garnered the ability to be able to relate to so many different types of people – whether it’s Bahrainis, other Arab expats who grew up in the GCC, Egyptians, or even Brits. For all the anxiety inducing aspects of being a “global citizen”, there’s definitely a silver lining.

My solution to this ongoing dilemma of mine would be to say that I’ll simply go on as I have, and that I won’t stress over the minutiae details of where I’m from and who I am culturally. I’ll be thankful for all the wonderful benefits being a third culture kid has afforded me, including might I add, being exposed to and eventually finding my path towards veganism. It would be to say that I’m creating my own cultural identity, one that’s completely unique to me, and that just because it isn’t what society dictates as the norm – doesn’t make it abnormal.
The only problem with that solution?
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It might get a little lonely.

Curried Mercimek Köftesi

I know I promised you guys part 3 of my trip recap, but I just couldn’t help sharing a teeny tiny recipe first. And in case you were wondering, yes it is in fact Turkey-inspired!

Confession time: while it’s always been my goal to re-create healthy vegan versions of Middle Eastern dishes – for the longest time Turkish cuisine was one big question mark to me, despite having visited Istanbul once before this last trip. Living in Bahrain, when referring to Turkish food, the word “grills” or “kebab” is usually ushered in shortly thereafter. Needless to say that didn’t interest me in the slightest.

My first semblance of an education came when I tried out a popular chain restaurant Kosebasi, in one of the local shopping malls here. (Another slightly embarrassing confession is the fact that I’d assumed it was actually a Persian restaurant for the longest time because of the oriental looking decor – but anyways I digress.) I was truly impressed at how veggie friendly the menu was and delighted in ordering a variety of meze and even wholewheat dairy-free pastries.

Needless to say I have come a long way, especially since returning from my travels, and am now an avid fan of  Turkish vegan cuisine. One of my favourite dishes was an ever-so-simple, mercimek köftesi – loosely translated that’s Lentil Kofte or meatball. Traditionally made with just cooked red lentils, bulgur and spices, the kofte is then shaped into patties and eaten as is – no baking frying or grilling required!

While I have tried my hand at a semi-traditional version of this, I was feeling inspired by my Macrocenter mezze meal, and decided to try my hand at a curried variety.

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The result did not disappoint.

 

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If you’re wondering about the particularly “grainy” appearance of my patties – the reason is that I used an equal ratio of bulgur to lentils the first time round. When I made it again I tried the ratio in the recipe and got a much more uniform appearance and texture.

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An all around light, bright and delectable dish – made with no fancy ingredients might I add, and incredibly easy to just throw together. I hope you’ll try it.

 

Sacrifice and Islam – weighing in from a vegan perspective

Upon learning of my veganism, skeptics (particularly those who are more religiously inclined) have been known to ask about my stance on the idea and consequent practice of sacrifice in Islam. I’ve touched on this subject in particular before, but  recently an event took place that made me question it on a much deeper level.

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But before I delve in to the ethics of animal sacrifice in Islam – a quick refresher for those of you who are not familiar with it.

Also referred to as ḏabiḥa (ذَبِيْحَة), animal sacrifice is ritually offered during Eid Al Adha (known as the festival of sacrifice). Worldwide, muslims preform a sunnah(mimicking a good deed done by a prophet) to the Prophet Ibrahim by sacrificially killing either a lamb, sheep, goat, cow or less commonly a camel. The meat of the offering is divided into parts – the largest portion is given to the poor, the second largest to the person’s relatives, and the smallest portion to the person’s direct family. The act of sacrifice is done to help the less fortunate and to commemorate Ibrahim (Abraham)’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael at God’s request.

When I was growing up, my family performed this almost every year. My brother and I would cower in the back of the garden watching a butcher read a blessing over a sheep he had hauled over in the back of his rickety truck. As per Halal requisites, he would feed it some water, say Bismillah (in the name of God) and swiftly slit it’s throat. I sometimes find it odd that I never really questioned the practice while growing up – or that I continued to eat meat for years after, but something about seeing the ritual year-on-year from such a young age left me desensitized in  sense. It wasn’t till I started eschewing meat altogether that I started to question this unnecessarily brutal ritual, which stood out to me like a sore thumb in a religion that preached compassion, love and understanding for all living beings.

Fast forward a good 20 years or so. Recently a string of unfortunate events befell my family; my mother, brother and I all had bad accidents almost consecutively. Luckily we’re all safe and well – and nothing has been compromised that cannot be replaced. In spite of that my mother insisted that these happenings were an act of the evil eye, and she wanted to do something to ward it off; a sacrifice.

I hardly had time to react, when she told me they would be slaughtering a sheep in our garage, then handing out all the proceeds to the poor. It had been years since I’d seen that reel play in front of my eyes, and I was unsure how to deal with it. Should I protest? Should I suggest that we simply offer money to charity in lieu of a sacrifice? For some reason I felt it would be best not to interfere. So the morning of said sacrifice I made myself scarce, and returned only well after it was all over – though the smell of blood was pungent and piercing. It left an awful taste in my mouth and in my conscience. Needless to say it became clear to me that I disagree with this practice through and through.

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Despite the fact that it is a ritual occurrence in our religion and culture; many don’t realise that sacrifice is NOT a pillar of Islam. In order to understand the institution of sacrifice in Islam one must consider the context in which it was first introduced.

Historically, pre-Islamic Pagan Arabs, Jews and Christians all offered some sacrifice in the hopes of attaining protection, acceptance or material gain from God – but the notion of “vicarious atonement of sin” (that is absolving one’s sins through the blood of another) is not mentioned at all in the Qur’an. Neither is the idea of gaining favor by offering the life of another to God – all that is demanded is one’s personal willingness to submit one’s ego and will.

Essentially, Muslims are not asked to kill an innocent animal to appease a higher power. So why did it happen all those years ago, when the Sunnah of sacrifice first came to be? Again – let’s revisit context. It must be considered that the Qur’anic verses that discuss  animal sacrifice – in relation to the circumstances under which these revelations were received – resulted in people trying to make a personal sacrifice by sharing their limited means of survival with poorer members of the community.

Islam’s perception towards ritual slaughter is not one of blood atonement, but rather the act of thanking God for one’s sustenance and the personal sacrifice of sharing one’s possessions and valuable food with fellow less fortunate people. The ritual itself is NOT about the sacrifice – it was about sharing the best of what you had.

There are several Qur’anic verses that highlight the true purpose and objective behind sacrifice – but of all of them allude to the same thing. The act of animal sacrifice is pertinent to the role animals played in Arabian society at the place and time. Humans were commanded to give thanks to God and praise Him for the sustenance provided by him by sacrificing something of value to themselves to demonstrate their appreciation for what they have been given. 

In this case it was the very animals on which their survival was based, but as we all know, times have changed. Thanks to the advent of modern agriculture and farming methods – we no longer need animals to survive – the millions of people turning vegan and vegetarian each year are living proof of that.

If my religion asks that I offer something I deem valuable to those less fortunate to give thanks for my own blessings and sustenance – I will not hesitate. I will offer a basket of fresh organic vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils. I will offer money, clothes, books and toys. But I will not compromise the life of an innocent animal and inflict pain and suffering where it is not needed.

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Turkey Recap Pt 2: Datli Maya + Macrocenter Review

Ideally this part of my recap should have been focused on all the wonderful vegan restaurants and cafes I frequented in Istanbul. But one thing that no Lonely Planet book or Happy Cow app will tell you about the city is that during Bayram (Also known as Eid, the three day Islamic holiday that follows the Holy month of Ramadan), pretty much everything is closed. Or, as the locals put it: kapılı.

I tried hitting up the likes of Parsifal, Galata Kitchen, and Zencefil - all to no avail. I was even more disheartened when I realized that Datli Maya, a rustic eatery boasting vegan and gluten free Lahmacun was also closed for business on the first day of Eid.

But on the second day…

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My prayers were answered!

Located in Cihangir, an up and coming quirky neighborhood speckled with a plethora of antique shops and vintage clothing stores, Datli Maya’s bright blue storefront is hard to miss, and the heavenly aroma emitting from their traditional wood fired oven even harder to bypass.

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I fell in love with the interiors instantly, the staff was so lovely, from the free tea station to the incredibly well branded menus – the entire place gave off this undeniably cool yet charming and quirky vibe.datli-maya-review-istanbul-9

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Our waitress, who just happened to be vegan herself, recommended we start with a stew of fresh seasonal vegetables and a meze platter.

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Accompanied with some freshly baked bread, of course.

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I cannot stress just how FRESH everything tasted. The tomato sauce was light and not the least bit greasy, and the hints of sweet and savory were truly delightful. The flavors married brilliantly, nothing was over seasoned and I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer simplicity yet sublime taste of the meze dishes.

Then came the vegan lahmacun and pide.

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Made with beet, Jerusalem artichokes, olive oil, parsley stems, Taşköprü garlic, dry and canned porcini mushrooms, and Himalayan salt and various spices.

To say it was delicious would be doing it a serious disservice.

datli-maya-review-istanbul-4 Wrapped up with some parsley and lemon juice, how the traditional lamb version of the dish is usually eaten.

I should note that because it was Eid, they didn’t have the GF dough available, so I wasn’t able to sample that which was a shame. But I happily chowed down on the wheaty version all the same, especially having read that 70% of all flour used at Datli Maya is whole wheat and whole rye, with the remaining 30% is white flour.

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A cup of licorice tea to seal the deal.

All in all, easily the best vegan meal I had in Istanbul. I spent the rest of my trip in Turkey hankering after their pide, and I would most definitely visit it again.

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It should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy grocery shopping when I travel – and if one were to grocery shop in Istanbul, then MacroCenter would definitely be the place.

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Think of it as an upscale supermarket, meets gourmet deli, meets health food store. I noticed they were pretty much ubiquitous in Istanbul and yet again the sleek branding drew me in.

From wild rice and quinoa, to non-dairy milks and gluten-free products, they had it all.

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I was even surprised to find Siracha – which I myself have yet to experiment with although it’s readily available in Bahrain too.

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Raw snacks from Saf! I picked up a few for on-the-go snacks and they were a lifesaver.

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The fresh produce section was tempting as ever – but alas, lack of proper cooking facilities at my hotel restrained me from indulging. Instead I headed to the ready foods section and picked up some delectable looking mezzes for a quick dinner.

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Artichokes stuffed with sauteed tomatoes and peppers, red quinoa tabbouleh (which tasted nothing like tabbouleh, but delicious regardless), apple and raisin kisir (a post-modern take on a traditional Turkish bulghur dish), fava (a bean dip made from a high protein pea called Gambilia, native to Turkey, beluga lentil salad, curried lentil kofte (also known as mercimek kofte) and some gluten-free quinoa crackers. All atop some fresh greens – words can’t express how tasty and light this makeshift vegan dinner was.

Do you have some must-visit vegan or foodie spots when you travel?

That’s all from me for now, dear readers, but keep your ears peeled for the next installment of my trip recap, where I’ll tell you all about my peaceful retreat in Fethiye and the wonderful vegan cooking class I attended in Bodrum.

Turkey Recap Pt 1: Vegan Street Food in Istanbul

Merhaba!

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As you may have gathered by my recent posts on Instagram and Facebook, I spent the past two weeks galavanting and vegan-venturing around Turkey. In addition to Istanbul I also stopped over in Fethiye for a retreat in the mountains by the south coast of the Aegean, before ending the trip with a visit to a popular beach town in Bodrum.

It feels surreal to be back now after such a whirlwhind and hectic trip – but I enjoyed every last second of it. Needless to say, I tried to jam pack as much as humanly possible during all three legs of the trip, so I have much to share, but first; an introspective into something I did not expect to find so much of in Istanbul: vegan street food.

Stumbling across a Nohutlu Pilav vendor outside the port of the Besiktas – Kadikoy ferry was a delightful surprise.

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Yes, it is just chickpeas and rice, and yes it was delicious.

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With a sprinkling of salt and black pepper – the perfect mid-afternoon snack.

Just a stone’s throw away was an old man selling freshly sliced apples, and sliced cucumbers with salt.

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I didn’t get any, but it looked (and smelled) unbelievably fresh. Plus the apple-coring meets spiralizer device was pretty cool.

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On the topic of fresh produce – another thing found in abundance all around Istanbul, is juice bars.

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Or as they refer to them; vitamin bars.

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From this particular vendor in Eminönü I had a deliciously spicy carrot, orange and ginger juice. 

Perhaps the most ubiquitous street food item in Istanbul is simit – a circular type of bread coated generously with sesame seeds.

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While what appears to be Turkey’s answer to the Bagel is in fact vegan, I must admit that I wasn’t a fan, it was too sour and dry for my liking – had I had it with some jam and tea however I might be singing a different tune right now. But anyways, I digress.

Roasted kestane however, I love.

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Thankfully the roasted chestnuts almost just as ubiquitous as simit.

Also on offer was some grilled sweetcorn – the smoky smell of which evokes childhood memories of summers spent in Egypt.

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And of course after a long day of sightseeing – what could be better than an ice cold piece of juicy watermelon?

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But to be honest, the biggest (and tastiest) surprise of all, was discovering Çiğ köfte.

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Pronouced “chee kufta”, it literally translates to raw meatball. Funnily enough, the traditional recipe calls for raw minced meat (similar to kibbeh nayyeh, in Lebanese cuisine) as of 10 years ago, the government in Turkey dictated that  the version sold in fast-food outlets must be meatless by law due to hygienic reasons. So in fact, unless you’re eating it at someone’s home, it is completely vegan!

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To say my face lit up when I saw this 200 or meters or so away, is probably an understatement.

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And right around lunchtime too! I took the plunge and ordered a durum wrap with all the trimmings, minus the spicy spread.

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A good call, since the bulgur mix itself was already pretty spicy, though offset perfectly by the pomegranate molasses sauce.

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Perfectly filling and flavourful with a serious crunch factor courtesy of the crisp veggies. Definitely on my list to recreate soon.

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And that’s all for now! Stay tuned for part 2 of my trip recap for more delicious vegan eats in Turkiye.

What is street food like where you’re from? Is any of it veg/vegan friendly?