A commuter hub right on the Bosphorus, Beşiktaş courses with energy. In addition to the masses streaming on and off the ferries and the cars inching up and down the steep thoroughfare of Barbaros Boulevard, the neighborhood is overrun with students – Bahçeşehir University sits a few steps from the main ferry terminal.
Of the many restaurants and coffee shops catering to the large student population, Yalla Falafel, a tiny corner spot, offers something different: vegetarian fare with Lebanese flavors. Judging by the many students who buzz in and out, this lighter food is preferred after a long day of studying and classes.
As soon as we enter the restaurant, which is marked by a green-lettered sign out front reading Yalla, “let’s go” or “come on” in Arabic, we’re transported out of Beşiktaş. It’s not just the Arabic calligraphy on the wall or the Arab underground music playing from the speakers – we can just sense that the place, which has a modern and progressive feel to it, was designed with a unique perspective in mind.
The main source of this perspective is Shaza Awada, 35, the Lebanese woman who co-owns Yalla Falafel with Nabil Abu Ghosh. She’s got an eclectic resume – after studying film production in university, she went on to work as a bartender in Beirut and then a yoga teacher in India. Her most recent position was at the United Nations in Ankara, where she worked for many years as an English-Arabic-French interpreter. Opening a restaurant had never been part of the plan. But while living in Ankara, “I began to think that I should start a business of my own, something distinctive,” she says. “Fortunately, I met a young Palestinian guy [Nabil], he also worked at the UN, and he had the same idea.”
After thinking long and hard, the duo decided to open a restaurant in Beşiktaş, “which is swarming with tourists and students.” They wanted to serve something that would appeal to a wide range of people. “We decided on falafel and fatteh [bread topped with chickpeas, tahini and yogurt sauce, and olive oil] because they are light, fast, and vegetarian, and can attract both Arabs and non-Arabs,” Shaza explains. “Falafel is a dish that if made perfectly, everyone who tastes it will like it.”
“Falafel is a dish that if made perfectly, everyone who tastes it will like it.”
To make the project a reality, they needed money. But Shaza and her colleague were unable to find a financial backer, so they had to make do with their limited resources. “We bought the essentials, as we did not have enough money to make the restaurant complete and fully equipped,” she tells us. “For example, we brought a small frying pan from home, a few dishes, some simple equipment – the nuts and bolts from a home kitchen.”
It also meant they had to do a lot of things by hand, pouring their own sweat into the restaurant. “We decorated the place ourselves, and when we opened in February last year, we still lacked some things that we thought we could buy after we had made some money,” Shaza says. “We also didn’t have any experience with the [wholesale] markets, so we were buying basic ingredients from nearby stores, at high prices. So in the beginning, our income was very little, barely covering some of the necessary upgrades.”
But over time, Shaza and Nabil, who work the restaurant with two other employees, became better acquainted with Turkish wholesale markets. After finally buying all the required equipment, they turned their attention to marketing the restaurant on social media. Students, Arab tourists, and Beşiktaş residents started flocking to the tiny spot for falafel made with a special touch.
For Shaza, the concept of mixing foods is similar to mixing drinks. She explains: “Because of my experience making cocktails, I was able to create a special tahini sauce with extra vegetables.” This sauce is drizzled on top of falafel sandwiches and salads, lending them a distinct (and delicious) taste. “We also have falafel stuffed with cheese, which makes for a richer and even more satisfying meal,” she adds.
Since it’s a small restaurant, the menu isn’t extensive. Falafel, fatteh and hummus are always available, as well as occasional vegetarian and vegan specials made with Lebanese flavors. However, Shaza is planning to offer a greater variety of dishes, mostly vegetarian and vegan, in 2020.
The clientele consists mainly of Arabs, but Shaza said more and more Turks are frequenting the restaurant. It’s particularly popular with students who are looking for something quick, easy and delicious after their classes (while most customers eat in, it’s possible to get takeaway as well).
Rama is one such student. Originally from Saudi Arabia, she studies at Bahçeşehir and comes to the restaurant multiple times a week to eat a falafel sandwich. “The falafel here tastes so good,” she explains, “especially because the sandwich contains a variety of vegetables: purslane, tomato, radish, pickles, mint, lettuce and that wonderful sauce. It’s a delicious treat at the end of the day.”
Likewise for Ali, a Syrian working in Istanbul, what makes Yalla stand out among the many shops selling falafel in Istanbul is the multitude of veggies – you feel as if you’re getting your five a day. “I come here once a week on my day off to eat falafel,” he adds. “My house is far away and it takes about an hour to get to Beşiktaş, but as they say – the delicious food makes you forget the difficult journey.”