Why did Kem Küm restaurant in Istanbul switch to serving vegan meals?
We meet Hasan Karsi, Owner of an Egyptian Vegan Restaurant in Istanbul
By Irem Ozturan
At Kem Küm, a five-table vegan restaurant at the corner of a narrow, tranquil Moda Street in Istanbul, customers are eating falafel wrap and Koshari, an Egyptian national dish of macaroni, lentils and noodles topped with spicy tomato sauce, garbanzo beans and crispy fried onions.
Cruising through the restaurant’s outdoors area in his Kem Küm T-shirt, owner Hasan Karsi, 40-years-old, pauses at each table to chat with his customers about food, the weather, pandemic life, personal stories – anything. Then he widens his smile as he approaches his Kangal shepherd dog, Oscar, who protects the entrance.
During lockdown, locals ordered takeout, and then, when restrictions eased in June and the restaurants reopened for in-person service, Kem Küm saw a record number of customer visits.
Diners, who read that the coronavirus most likely jumped from an animal to humans, worried about consuming meat. They also liked the owner, the delicious recipes and the low prices for plant-based meals.
So, how did a former-meat eater and international trader become a restaurateur and raconteur?
An economics graduate of 9 Eylul University in Izmir, Hasan who speaks Turkish, English and German, worked as the supply chain manager of a logistics firm that specialised in international trade.
Hasan never thought he would quit to pursue his passion for cooking. Yet, “Here, I am,” says Hasan. “If Marwa, my wife, hadn’t given me the support, I don’t think I would have ever found the courage to start my own business.”
For Hasan, it was love at first sight. In March 2019, he met Marwa Abdelgawad through a mutual friend. The 42-year-old Egyptian worked as an English teacher in her country for 20 years until she visited Istanbul as a tourist.
“I had this beautiful feeling before I set out on my trip to Istanbul, that something was waiting for me in that city,” says Marwa. “Turns out it was my future husband.”
Fast forward to 2021. Hasan and Marwa, now married, own and work as chefs at Kem Küm in the heart of one of the oldest and most vibrant neighborhoods in Istanbul.
“We wake up at 6 a.m. and stay here until midnight,” says Hasan. “Despite the physical exhaustion, our souls found peace in what we do.”
As a child, Hasan helped his mum and dad in the kitchen and observed how they washed the ingredients, took out the spice shakers, set the table and appreciatively inhaled the scent of warm, homemade bread. That smell stuck with him, and when he opened the restaurant, he started baking his special sourdough bread.
Marwa cooked Egyptian Macaroni Bechamel. Then, the duo added falafel to the menu, which they prepare with dried fava beans. As the menu expanded gradually, the green recipes of Egyptian cuisine attracted vegan customers. They suggested that Kem Küm could go 100 per cent vegan.
A lifelong omnivore, Hasan hesitated. But the more he talked to his customers and got their feedback, the more he researched, he completely changed the story of the restaurant and his own diet.
“A clear conscience is the most rewarding aspect of this transformation,” says Hasan. “I believe that what you eat is who you are.”
“Instead of harming a living being and consuming its negative energy, eating plant-based fresh options will make us feel much better physically and mentally.”
The vegan stigma is still present in Istanbul in 2020, partially because most vegan restaurants are in rich neighborhoods, selling products at high prices, and partially due to cultural biases.
Veganism is often perceived as “the diet of the eccentric rich” or “the diet of hippies,” says Hasan, who aims to change this by offering tasty plant-based food at reasonable prices and welcoming everybody.
Regular customer, Jorge Otaiza, 17-years-old and a professional swimmer, adds: “Another misconception of veganism in Istanbul, is that athletes cannot obtain sufficient protein without meat or dairy in a meal.”
Son of a Venezuelan diplomat in Istanbul, Jorge eats the grand falafel burger at Kem Küm almost every Saturday after his morning practice.
Inspired by his conversations with Hasan, he did his research and decided to integrate more vegetables and legumes into his own diet.
“The food here is rich in protein and really satisfying,” says Jorge.
Another loyal customer Beyza, a student at Koc University in Istanbul, fell in love with the food the moment she tasted Hasan’s homemade bread and Marwa’s Koshari. But it was primarily the welcoming environment that made her come back.
“The communication with Hasan was so sincere that this place immediately felt like a community full of vegan solidarity and good feelings,” says Beyza, who is a vegetarian.
Kem Küm is also a hub for the international community in Istanbul. Very often, Arabic is spoken at a table, Spanish or Portuguese at another and a blend of Turkish and English at the cash register.
Communicating in a common language or two or sometimes even three, strangers lean on to other tables and engage in conversations, making new acquaintances thanks to Hasan, usually in the middle, introducing people.
At his small coffee table inside the restaurant, Hasan fullfills his various roles: The accountant, brand-manager, supply-manager and the creative chef.
More than 5,000 customers have eaten at Kem Küm since it opened in July 2019, according to Hasan’s records, and every day the menu that started with bread and pasta evolves with feedback from visitors and explorations within the kitchen.
Now offering around 50 options of main meals and desserts, the menu is growing every day, inspiring Hasan to consider expanding and maybe even franchising one day.
Words by Irem Ozturan, @OzturanIrem