Why you should care

Because Turkish food doesn’t need to come from a cow. 

Some food trends take hold in a country and spread quickly around the world. But they’re often meaty or involve animal products of some kind. A new superfood from Turkey — which is vegan — is currently taking European cities by storm. And it’s preparing itself for the leap across the Atlantic.

Çiğ köfte (pronounced “tschea kerfta”), which literally translates to “raw meatballs,” is a traditional Anatolian dish made with raw meat. But don’t be put off — the version currently seeing popularity in European cities is completely free of animal products. And there are just a few ingredients: a spicy blend of bulgur (a cereal food made of wheat), tomato paste, oil and chili. The spicy mixture is wrapped in lettuce leaves, seasoned with lemon juice and pomegranate syrup and topped with some leaves of parsley or mint. The rolls are about the size of a thumb, and a typical serving is about 10 rolls — enough to be satisfying, but you won’t feel overstuffed.

The original çiğ köfte recipe has been passed down in Turkish and Armenian communities for centuries. However, it never gained wider popularity outside Turkey because of the risks that come with using raw meat. But in an increasing health-focused world, and with many people turning to more healthy food choices, Turkish franchise Cigköftem saw potential in selling a vegan version of the dish, which is easy and cheap to prepare. It’s also relatively cheap to eat: Dish prices range from $3.50 to $11.50.

They are now negotiating with two franchisees: one in Miami and one in Jersey City.

And, vegan or not, European customers seem to like it. The chain began expanding internationally six years ago. It was a slow start, but Cigköftem opened 75 new eateries during the past two years and is now present in seven other countries. And they’re coming to the U.S. — well, actually revisiting the States. In 2012, Cigköftem opened a store in Manhattan that customers seemed to like, but difficulties with the franchisee led to its closing. Cevdet Özen, Cigköftem’s Europe branch manager says that they are now negotiating with two new franchisees: one in Miami and one in Jersey City.

But there are some worries. The U.S. is a “difficult market for us,” Özen explains, because there are fewer Turkish immigrants than in European countries. Only after the shops have become established in these immigrant communities, do other customers follow. And until now, the dish — especially in its vegan version — is relatively unknown stateside and can only be found in restaurants offering Mediterranean cuisine.

Dr. Suzanne Babich, professor of health policy and nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill, believes that çiğ köfte has a chance in the U.S. market where “there is lots of room for new and innovative products.” Vegan foods are becoming more popular thanks to their convenience, she says, and foods made without meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and other animal ingredients “can be acceptable to a wider range of people,” plus they meet the criteria for heart healthy or diabetic diets.

Delicious, healthy and cheap — could the fresh and spicy çiğ köfte become more popular than fried falafel? Time will tell.

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