We track the trail of healthy life routes in Istanbul. Our first route is Vacilando Restaurant-Cafe in Galata.
Must Eat: Gluten-free, refined sugar-free, vegan or vegetarian pies made from seasonal fruits; mosaic cake with lots of nuts; gluten-free, vegan soup of the day from seasonal vegetables; toast from sourdough bread with vegan cheese or goat cheese of their own production
Must Have: Water kefir and Zapatista coffee
Must Do: Chat with Özge Kırış, the founder of the place
Just below the Galata Tower, imagine a quiet and peaceful street lined with old two- or three-storey buildings with modern cafes, restaurants and workshops on both sides. You move forward, looking around curiously. Until I see a V-letter sign on the right, with its green reminiscent of spring leaves. It invites you inside with its long bar table with a few live flowers on the outside, and when you open the door, such warm lighting and such a friendly atmosphere greet you that it warms you up from the very first step. Vacilando is such a place. Offering delicious flavors to vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets; has adopted the principle of using fair, clean, sustainable and traceable food; a cafe that aims to live without waste and with recycling.
As someone who has been gluten-free and refined sugar-free for four years and dairy-free for the last two years, the most impressive thing to me was their delicious desserts, which made me feel what they thought of me. Desserts made for this kind of special diet are generally not enjoyable, they are tasteless and unsalted. But the first thing that crossed my mind after the first bite of the mosaic cake in Vacilando was “Finally, someone thought of me too”.
We met Özge Kırış, the owner of the place, who welcomed me with all her smiling face, when Vacilando was in Arnavutköy. Working with additive-free, chemical-free and natural products there, Özge Kırış took things one step further at the reopened Vacilando in Galata, and started to make her products by purchasing local and seasonal vegetables, usually from women producers and women’s cooperatives. In addition, recyclable packaging and reusable cloth bags and metal boxes designed by Ayşe Çelem are used here. Özge explains this change as follows: “I am who I am, how I want to live and how I live, I keep it in my shop. I am a vegetarian very close to vegan, I started to have allergies a while ago, I realized that those allergies are actually caused by chemicals, completely from the food consumed by the animal and from the packaging. When I saw that many people have these problems, I started looking for answers to the questions of how animals that provide the nutrients I buy, under what conditions, and how we can reach at least animal food, and we use products that match the answers I found in the shop.”
When I said that it was an act of courage because I knew that it was not easy to find products in this way, I said, “I don’t know if it’s courage, but of course unexpected situations happen to us. For example, when we started here, we had vegetables and fruits brought from various farms in Anatolia. A farm we bought products from said that it would not take an order for a week due to family reasons, and we could not reach them for three weeks. What can we do? Nothing. Then, due to the excessive increase in shipping charges, we had to switch to producer markets, to the organic market,” he says, noting that life itself is to continue on the road by generating a new idea and solving the difficulties. For this reason, they prepare a weekly menu.
Their menu is constantly changing according to the ingredients they buy. Isn’t that what life is like, it’s a constant change. Their menu always includes vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free desserts, the vegan soup of the day, which varies according to the ingredients bought that week, vegan cheeses and sourdough breads they make themselves, goat cheeses toasted from farms where goats are taken care of, and salads prepared with fresh greens and vegetables.
The density of the chocolate in the mosaic cake is the kind that makes whole, crunchy nuts bite your fingers. Purple carrot pie also impresses with its creamy filling and crunchy base. Bringing their coffee to the country through fair trade is very important to Ms. Özge. That’s why he started with Zapatista coffee, and when the coffee could not be shipped due to the climate crisis, he got their coffee from Probador Collectiva. Özge is very excited as Zapatista coffee is starting to enter the country again these days. They also have a corner where they bring the products they use in the kitchen to their customers. You can find coffee, Lazica teas, olive oils, sauces and jams here.
In every corner of Vacilando, it is possible to feel the love for the environment, for pawed friends with cats that come in and out all the time, for air, water and people. Everything from the cleaning materials used in the kitchen to the pumpkin fiber used for washing dishes is vegan and organic; Everything from the waste bins where the neighbors collect their recyclable waste to the compost bin is environmentally friendly. Ms. Özge explains the aims and objectives of this environmentally sensitive business as follows: “We opened this place to learn. We research, learn, share something, and in return someone else says, ‘Oh, there is such a thing, have you heard of it?’ and we look at it as well. We’re trying to create a different center for a lot of people. It is still on a very small scale, the number of people we can reach is also small, but this is the kind of growth that needs to happen anyway. The other is organic and unreal.”
The place is furnished with items from Özge Hanım’s mother’s shop in Horhor, most of which are for sale. According to what Ms. Özge said, she even had to remove her customers from the chairs sold by saying that she was very sorry. When I asked her how she chose the shop with a peaceful atmosphere, Ms. Özge’s answer was very clear: “The shop chose me. Because I said I would never open a shop again. In 2019, I moved to this street, three sides. Coincidentally, a very old friend of mine who owns the property turned out. This is an old theater with a foyer, cafe and art gallery and monoblock space downstairs. I was looking for a small workshop. One day, when I was talking to my friend Bengi, whose house I was living in, when I said, “I’m looking for a shop”, he said that this place was empty and that I should look here. Of course, it had a completely different atmosphere when it was empty. The front was completely open, it had a great energy of its own, and it made me say if I was going to enter a store, I would go here.
I was very happy when Tülay Hanım from the kitchen team came to me and said, “We have gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan desserts, soups, breads, toasts on the menu,” after I went inside and sat on the chairs that were once part of a team but now only have one or two of them there. Because I felt that I could take good care of my own body and soul here. The scarcity of such venues also increased my admiration for Vacilando. Ms. Özge, who says that seeing not only shops but also shopping options, experimenting with materials and experiencing their limitlessness in Los Angeles experience, which is the center of healthy nutrition in the USA, is very effective in her shop, continues: “Senay is more experienced than me in many subjects. Very good with fermented and vegan products. That’s why what we do here as a team is very important to us. Not only health, but also improving ourselves is meaningful for us. Our recipes are more experiential, not just about making date balls.”
Of course, when I mentioned fermentation, water kefir immediately came to my mind. Water kefir, which is completely different from milk kefir, is a type of kefir that most people do not know, fermented with special yeast and fruit, and resembles a carbonated drink. It is a must-taste drink when visiting Vacilando. The stories of starting to make water kefir are also interesting. “While Senay was making kombucha, one of the mushrooms got moldy, kombucha mushroom is difficult to care for temperature, environment etc. may cause deterioration. After this unsuccessful experience, we thought of water kefir. Senay had never done it before, we bought it, tried it and now he has become an expert. By trial and error, we succeeded by popping lots of bottles.”
When I asked Ms. Özge about the mass of Vacilando, which is open to new tastes, cares about sustainability, especially preferred by vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free people, but which has become a frequent destination for people who can’t give up after tasting their products, they said, foreigners that are in this environment and our neighbors in Cihangir and Galata are our main mass,” he replies. During my time in the shop, “Do you have any pie for me? Do you have any of my cheesecakes?” A lot of people who say they are just about to come and go, they are chatting with Ms. Özge. It’s been hard to find a place that feels like family lately.
Bread of Vacilando is another remarkable product. All of them are from the flour of the seeds and all of them are sourdough. They buy all of their flour from different mills because they prefer the flours that have been laboratory analyzed and recommended by Nesrin Hanım, her friend from Arıköy Cooperative, whom Özge Kırış met in İsmek. For example, when the einkorn of the place where they buy karakilcik is not of good standard, they have to choose different mills. Here, too, they adhere to the principle of change and adaptation to achieve the best. It is also possible to order sourdough bread. But due to fermentation, you need to give at least two days notice. No delivery to address.
Ms. Özge explains the reason for this issue as follows: “We do not give takeaways abroad. We gave in the pandemic, but we stopped working because of the commission they received. Now we have a mass. Those who want to buy it come and buy it from the shop, if it is very close, I take it by scooter, if it is around and above a certain amount, we send it, but there is usually no service. Because the road is another responsibility; We had some bad experiences with the couriers, so we gave up.”
Vacilando is a pet friendly establishment. A cat can be a guest at your table at any time. They even bake Timoti biscuits for our animal friends. All sales revenue of Timoti biscuits, named after a dog that was thrown into the street twice, goes to our friends with paws in need. They have also taken it upon themselves to feed the cats around the shop and have them neutered. You can bring your pawed friend to Vacilando with peace of mind.
Saying that her favorite and indispensable ingredient is fresh fruits, Ms. Özge expresses her admiration for blood oranges with all her excitement: “Blood orange is the harbinger of spring; in September there are figs, autumn blackberries, autumn figs that appear for the second time; then a dry period except for apples, pears, oranges, tangerines, dates and lemons. After the uniformity, the blood orange comes out as ‘ta daaa’ and it makes me happy because it reflects all the hues of the colors.”
Vacilando, which contains every shade like blood orange, is a business that maintains its sustainability, transparency, and stance against human, nature and animal exploitation, despite the difficulties it faces, such as limited options in purchasing products, the municipality not emptying the recycling and compost bins, and excessive cargo charges. In the words of Ms. Özge, they are trying to touch it from here and there somehow. What summarizes Vacilando is what Özge Kırış said at the end of the interview: “We hope to be a part of the change. Even demanding initiates change. We also demand…”