As I sip on an apple/lemon/ginger "immunity-boosting" smoothie, nibble at flaxseed tacos filled with almond paste, olives, and avocado, and discuss the milk- and sugar-free tahini and mint ice creams we'll order next, I experience a moment of extreme dislocation. The conversations going on around me are all in Turkish, but the food seems decidedly Californian. In some ways, that's been a hard combination for Istanbul to swallow.
Likely still the only raw vegan restaurant in the country, Saf (the name comes from the Turkish word for "pure" or "innocent") originated in Turkey, but has found more success with its Western European outlets. "Saf London always gets great reviews, it's always full. There is more general awareness there," admits Tolga Gemicioğlu, a project manager for the restaurant's parent company, The LifeCo.
"Turkey has a culture with a pretty strong meat influence, so if we talk about a vegetarian diet, it is difficult for many people to accept. Turks are also an enjoyment-loving people, so we come up against ones who say, 'C'mon, we are working very hard, can't we have some fun?' They jump to the conclusion that they have to give everything up."
The LifeCo's smörgåsbord-style wellness offerings are designed to counter that assumption, letting the curious dabble in a bit of yoga here, some organic recipes there, maybe a cleansing stay at the company's seaside detox center if they're feeling really ambitious.
Founded in Turkey by Ersin Pamuksüzer, a businessman who became a convert to alternative medicine and philosophy after a stint at a detox retreat in Thailand, The LifeCo has expanded to Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (where Saf is marketed as an acronym for "simply authentic food"). Though many of his countrymen have been slow to catch on, Gemicioğlu says that green and healthy lifestyles are increasingly popular as a topic in the Turkish press, and that the spread of Internet -- and other types of -- interconnectivity has broadened the audience for The LifeCo's products and services as well.
"Turkey, like other places, is now part of a global network," he says. "When people travel, they see these things elsewhere. They are developing faster in the U.S. and Europe, but things like the trans-fat ban became important news in Turkey as well."
Gaps In The Organic Supply Chain
Progress in Turkey is also stymied by a weak distribution chain for eco-friendly items. While the London-based Saf serves 90 percent organic food, for example, the market in Turkey is not stable enough to provide a comparable menu. In Istanbul, Saf has a relationship with a few organic farmers, and gets food at a local organic market, Gemicioğlu explains, but "we don't have the luxury of just ordering up kilos of things and having them arrive. You can't just get anything, anytime you want."
In a way, the company's philosophy of practicing non-perfection seems made for the challenges it faces in Turkey. "We emphasize including more healthier options in your life, not necessarily giving up other things," Gemicioğlu says. "But when you add the healthier things, the time and space for other ones automatically decreases."
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