How female chefs shine in Istanbul

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No bigger than chickpeas and topped with tangy yogurt and sizzling spiced butter, the manti were so good you could inhale them by the dozens. My partner, Barry, and I devoured these lamb-filled Turkish dumplings, shaped like cute shells, at Hatice Anne Ev Yemekleri, a homey spot in Istanbul's Kuzguncuk neighborhood.

“There are so many anonymous cooks in this city,” said Benoit Hanquet as we greeted Merve Ataoglu, the restaurant's scarf manti maker. Mr. Hanquet, our guide for a food tour of Istanbul's culinary back streets, would later take us to Gule Kafe (fried donuts and crumbly sesame cookies) and Gunesin Sofrasi (a tasty mosaic of meze), two more establishments that They serve delicious delicacies and are supervised. by women.

Exploring a city through its various restaurants is always rewarding. But inspired by Mr. Hanquet's tour, I decided that on a subsequent visit to Istanbul I would focus solely on kitchens run by talented women. For all its glamor and growing international fame, Istanbul's food scene has until recently remained patriarchal: all celebrity chefs and boastful ustas (masters) presiding over traditional specialties like baklava or kebab.

“Men ran professional kitchens, women were expected to cook at home for their families,” local food media star and cookbook author Refika Birgul told me. “But with the rise of modern food culture in Istanbul, that dynamic is finally changing.”

Indeed. In the decade and a half I've spent in this city, I've seen a generation of female chefs emerge who quietly defined Istanbul's sophisticated style of cooking, a language that often involves creative takes on Anatolian ingredients like yogurt, tahini, and tahini. and pomegranate. And so, revisiting old favorites and checking out new arrivals, I crisscrossed the city on routes illuminated by the power of female culinary stars.

Istanbul's historic peninsula, the city's former Byzantine-Ottoman core of mosques and imperial bazaars, dominated by the magnificence of Hagia Sophia, is a tourist hub. Locals, however, hardly come here, unless it is to buy wedding gold at the Grand Bazaar or to dine at Giritli. This modern meyhane (tavern) still seems like a delightful find, even after almost two decades in business. Set in a 19th-century Ottoman mansion and idyllic garden, Giritli is owned by pioneering chef and restaurateur Ayse Sensilay, whose roots are in Crete (Giritli means Cretan in Turkish). Drawing on Hellenic family recipes and Istanbul's multicultural heritage, Ms. Sensilay constantly updates familiar flavors: black-eyed peas, a traditional Aegean ingredient, come unexpectedly mixed with tangy slivers of dried apricot; Cacik, a classic yogurt sauce, contains juicy purslane and green almonds instead of the usual cucumbers.

Giritli's prix fixe dinner includes a constellation of meze and entrees. For lunch, one can go a la carte, as we did, eating a pile of crispy fried zucchini followed by a plate of orzo pilaf with seafood and then a grilled local bluefish called lufer. As we finished our caramelized quince dessert, Mrs. Sensilay, a grand artistic lady with elegant red glasses, entered.

“When I started in the restaurant business, it was very difficult for women,” she said.

“The new generation is luckier. Now they can get exceptional vocational training,” she continued. “Moreover, modern eating styles offer more creativity, which is attractive to women because we are innovative and reform-minded by nature.”

Fixed price dinner from 1,200 TL per person, or $40; lunch for two around 1,800 TL.

Across the Golden Horn, the Beyolgu neighborhood has always been Istanbul's party and restaurant hotspot. Its current culinary star is Cigdem Seferoglu, who opened Hodan in 2021 in the basement of an elegant 1901 building. With white tablecloths, an open kitchen, a tree rising from the ground, and contemporary Turkish art (including a fantastic chandelier origami), Hodan has the feel of a glamorous indoor-outdoor brasserie.

Riffs on traditional cuisine at our table included a pomegranate and cucumber salad topped with a scoop of tart cherry sorbet and fluffy, truffled taramosalata toast. Then came the grilled octopus, diced and dressed with spicy green olives, and a flame-bathedpida (flatbread) topped with unctuous morsels of kokorec (i.e., umm, roasted intestines), a brave homage to the food street of Istanbul. A voluptuous tiramisu decorated with rose petals and grass-green local pistachios accompanied us into the night, past revelers entering and exiting nearby nightclubs.

Dinner for two around 1,900 TL.

No one would think of going to eat Asian food in this city. However, at Roka Galataport you can enjoy delicious plates of raw fish and Robata skewers, overseen by the talented executive chef, Suna Hakyemez, a veteran of the famous Fat Duck in England.

And one night we took a scenic ride on the Bosphorus water ferry to the Bebek neighborhood, for lunch at Sankai by Nagaya. This Asian newcomer received a Michelin star eight months after it opened last March. At Hotel Bebek, we were given a room key card to enter Sankai's serene third-floor 24-seat dining room with brilliant water views. In his open kitchen, sushi shokunin (artisan) Hiroko Shibata displayed supernatural skills with a knife.

A protégé of Michelin-starred Japanese chef and Sankai mastermind Yoshisumi Nagaya, Ms. Shibata spent years traveling around Japan sampling regional specialties while working for the Japanese navy. After retiring early, she pursued her obsession with fish in the equally male-dominated world of sushi. “Male colleagues were so uncomfortable seeing me in the kitchen!” she recalled with a smile. “But they had to get used to it.”

While most sushi places in Istanbul import their seafood, Shibata insists on exclusively local fish. Our omakase started with kaiseki-style bites, including an adorable crab and shrimp donut glazed with Black Sea trout roe. The highlights of the sashimi plate were the alabaster petals of pristine sea bass from the Sea of ​​Marmara and the buttery nuggets of palamut (bonito). From the Aegean came fatty minced tuna and plump prawns in Ms. Shibata's elegant maki rolls.

After our elaborate chestnut dessert, we asked Mrs. Shibata if she was learning Turkish.

“Especially the bad words I heard from the fishermen,” he replied.

Tasting menus from 4,500 TL per person.

North of Bebek, the leafy riverside enclave of Yenikoy was until recently a quiet area of ​​traditional bakeries and fish restaurants with waiters in white jackets. It's now a dining destination, thanks in part to female-run restaurants like the Michelin-starred Araka and the charming Apartiman, owned by chef Burcak Kazdal and his brother Murat. With a citrus-scented back garden, the Kazdals converted the Apartiman in 2017 from an old apartment building, and it's now packed with young locals and food industry types every night. The atmosphere is so welcoming that strangers soon feel like regular customers.

A former baker, pastor and butcher who lived and worked in San Francisco and England, Ms. Kazdal has an eclectic personal cooking style, inspired by travel, old cookbooks and her special suppliers.

That style was delicious in our appetizers of savory celery root roasted with pekmez (grape molasses) and miso and dressed with pickled radishes; and on the lightly smoked horse mackerel served over borlotti beans, grapes and jagged sourdough croutons that soaked up the warm vinaigrette beneath. As for the eriste (traditionally cut Turkish noodles) cooked in duck broth and topped with shredded duck pieces and persimmon wedges to cleanse the palate, it's the kind of heartwarming, comforting food you'd appreciate every day.

Dinner for two around 2,000 TL.

Our last stop was Vadi, an inland district of gleaming skyscrapers and mega shopping malls, for dinner at Seraf Vadi. The restaurant's owner, Dogan Yildirim, is a Kurdish restaurateur so obsessed with gastronomic authenticity that he continued to fire chefs until he offered the job to his commercial director, Sinem Ozler. Ms. Ozler, who was a prodigious home cook, traveled throughout Turkey to source regional specialties for Seraf Vadi's menu. So dishes on their current menu include Azeri hengel (hand-rolled soft noodles with caramelized onion) from the Turkish-Armenian border, and yaglama (layers of wood-fired flatbreads moistened with tomato-beef) from the central city of Anatolia. Kayseri.

Even such familiar classics as dolma, icli kofte (meat-filled bulgur dumpling) and lahmacun (“Turkish pizza”) are elevated with heightened ingredients and attention to detail. It is exciting to savor these deep-rooted Anatolian flavors in a high-design room accompanied by unique Turkish wines. Sabiha Apaydin, one of the country's leading wine experts, created the restaurant's list of 240 labels.

“Traditional Turkish cuisine is often served in a humble setting, without alcohol,” Ozler said. “We are proud to give him the beautiful home he deserves.”

At Seraf Vadi, our gastronomic journey ended with the dish that had launched it: manti, finished in a wood-fired oven for a perfect ratio of crispy dough and succulent lamb filling. It was a dish that inspired a gastronomic pilgrimage and a testament to the culinary prowess of Istanbul's cooks.

Dinner for two around 2200 TL. Given Turkey's current inflation rate, all prices listed in this article are approximate and do not include alcohol or service.

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