No bigger than chickpeas and covered in spicy yogurt and spicy butter, the mantis were so good they could be inhaled by the dozen. My partner, Barry, and I devoured these lamb-filled Turkish dumplings, fashioned into cute tufted shells, at Hatice Anne Ev Yemekleri, a homey spot in Istanbul’s Kuzguncuk neighborhood.
“There are so many unseen female chefs in this city,” Benoit Hanquet said as we greeted Merve Ataoglu, the restaurant’s head chef. Mr. Hanquet, our guide for a food tour of Istanbul, will later take us to Gule Kafe (fried donuts and crushed sesame cookies) and Gunesin Sofrasi (a delicious mosaic of meze) – two more establishments that serve delicious delicacies and supervised by women.
Exploring a city through its different restaurants is always rewarding. But inspired by Mr. Hanquet’s tour, I decided on a subsequent visit to Istanbul to focus only on kitchens run by talented women. Despite its glamor and growing international reputation, Istanbul’s food scene has until recently remained patriarchal – all buff celebrity chefs and crazy ustas (masters) presiding over traditional specialties like baklava or kebab.
“Men ran commercial kitchens, women had to cook at home for their families,” local food media star and cookbook author Refika Birgul told me. “But with the rise of contemporary fine dining culture in Istanbul, that dynamic is finally changing.”
Actually. In the decade and a half I’ve spent time in this city, I’ve seen a generation of female chefs emerge, quietly defining Istanbul’s refined style of cuisine — an idiom that often includes creative Anatolian ingredients like yogurt, tahini and pomegranate. And so, revisiting old favorites and checking out newcomers, I criss-crossed the city on routes lit by female culinary power.
The historic peninsula of Constantinople, the old Byzantine-Ottoman core of the city with imperial mosques and bazaars, dominated by the magnificence of Hagia Sophia, is a tourist center. Locals, however, hardly ever come here, unless to buy wedding gold at the Grand Bazaar — or to dine at Giritli. This modern meyhane (tavern) still feels like a taste discovery, even after nearly two decades in business. Housed in a 19th-century Ottoman mansion and an idyllic garden, Giritli is owned by pioneering chef and restaurateur Ayse Sensilay, whose roots lie in Crete (Giritli means Cretan in Turkish). Drawing on Greek family recipes and Istanbul’s multicultural heritage, Ms. Sensilay constantly reinvents familiar flavors: Black-eyed peas, a traditional Aegean ingredient, come unexpectedly with tangy slices of dried apricot. Cacik, a classic yogurt dip, is filled with juicy slaw and green almonds instead of the usual cucumbers.
Giritli’s prix-fixe dinner includes a constellation of appetizers and mains. For lunch one can go à la carte, as we did, eating a pile of crispy fried zucchini followed by a bowl of seafood orzo pilaf — and then a grilled local bluefish called lufer. As we finished our caramelized quince dessert, Mrs. Sensilay, an arty grande dame with elegant red glasses.
“When I started in the restaurant business, it was so hard for women,” she said.
“The younger generation is luckier. Now they can get excellent vocational training,” he continued. “Additionally, modern food styles offer more creativity — appealing to women because we are innovators and reformers by nature.”
Dinner is charged from 1,200 TL per person or $40. lunch for two about 1,800 TL.
Across the Horn Bay, the Beyolgu district has always been Istanbul’s party and restaurant playground. 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 floor and modern Turkish art (including a fantastic origami chandelier ), Hodan has the air of a glamorous indoor-outdoor brasserie.
Riffs on traditional cuisines at our table included a pomegranate and cucumber salad topped with a scoop of sour cherry sorbet and fluffy truffle taramo salad on toast. Next came grilled octopus, diced and topped with luscious green olives, and a flaming pike (flatbread) with unusual tidbits of kokorec (ie, um, grilled intestines), a brave homage to Istanbul’s street food. A sumptuous tiramisu garnished with rose petals and green local pistachios led us into the night, past party kids shuffling in and out of nearby nightclubs.
Dinner for two about 1,900 TL.
One wouldn’t think of going for Asian food in this town. However, delicious raw fish dishes and robata skewers can be enjoyed at Roka Galataport, under the supervision of the gifted executive chef, Suna Hakyemez, a veteran of the famous Fat Duck in England.
And one night we took a scenic Bosporus water bus ride to the Bebek neighborhood to eat at Sankai by Nagaya. This newcomer from Asia was awarded a Michelin star within eight months of opening last March. At the Bebek Hotel, we were given a room key card to enter Sankai’s serene 24-seat third-floor dining room with sparkling water views. In his open kitchen, sushi shokunin (artisan) Hiroko Shibata flashes supernatural knife skills.
A protégé of Michelin-starred Japanese chef and Sankai mastermind Yoshisumi Nagaya, Ms. Shibata spent years traveling Japan sampling local specialties while working for the Japanese navy. After an early retirement, she followed her obsession with fish into the equally male-dominated world of sushi. “Male colleagues were so uncomfortable seeing me in the kitchen!” he recalled with a laugh. “But they had to get used to it.”
While most sushi spots in Istanbul import their seafood, Ms. Shibata insists that they fish exclusively locally. Our omakase began with kaiseki-style bites, including an adorable crab and shrimp donut iced with Black Sea trout roe. Standout sashimi were the alabaster petals of virgin sea bass from the Sea of Marmara and buttery nuggets of palamut (palamoutsi). From the Aegean came the chopped fatty tuna and plump langoustines in Ms. Shibata’s elegant maki rolls.
After our elaborate chestnut dessert, we asked Ms. Shibata if she is learning Turkish.
“Mostly the bad words I got from the fishermen,” she replied.
Tasting menu from 4,500 TL per person.
North of Bebek, the leafy seaside enclave of Yenikoy was until recently a sleepy area of traditional bakeries and fish taverns with white-jacketed waiters. 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 her brother, Murat. With a citrus-scented back garden, Apartiman was converted by the Kazdals in 2017 from an old block of flats and now buzzes nightly with young locals and food industry types. The atmosphere is so welcoming, strangers soon feel like regulars.
A former baker, shepherd and butcher who lived and worked in San Francisco and England, Ms. Kazdal has an eclectic personal cooking style inspired by her travels, vintage cookbooks, and specialty purveyors.
This style was deliciously demonstrated in our appetizers of flavorful celeriac roasted with pekmez (grape molasses) and miso and bright pickled radishes. and the lightly smoked safrido served over borlotti beans, grapes and jagged sourdough croutons that brought out the warm vinaigrette underneath. As for the eriste (traditional Turkish cut dumplings) cooked in duck stock and topped with melting chunks of pulled duck and palate-cleansing lotus slices, it’s the kind of tasty comfort food I’d welcome any day.
Dinner for two about 2,000 TL.
Our last stop was in Vadi, a hinterland of shiny skyscrapers and big shopping malls, to dine at Seraf Vadi. The restaurant’s owner, Dogan Yildirim, is a Kurdish restaurateur so obsessed with culinary authenticity that he kept firing chefs until he offered the job to his business manager, Sinem Ozler. Mrs. Ozler, who was an amazing cook at home, traveled all over Turkey to research local specialties for the menu at Seraf Vadi. As such, dishes on her current menu include Azeri hengel (hand-rolled diskettes of noodles with caramelized onions) from the Turkish-Armenian border and yaglama (layers of tomato-soaked wooden breads) from the central Anatolian city. Kayseri.
Even such well-known classics as dolma, icli kofte (meat-filled semolina dumplings) and lahmacun (‘Turkish pizza’) are elevated by excellent ingredients and attention to detail. It is exciting to enjoy these root flavors of Anatolia in a highly designed 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,” Ms Ozler said. “Here we are proud to offer him a beautiful home that he deserves.”
At Seraf Vadi, our food journey ended with the dish that launched it — mandi, finished in a wood-fired oven for a perfect ratio of crispy dough to juicy lamb filling. It was a dish to inspire a food pilgrimage and a testament to the culinary skill of Istanbul’s female cooks.
Dinner for two about 2,200 TL. Given Turkey’s current inflation rate, all prices listed in this article are approximate and do not include alcohol and services.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and subscribe to the Travel Dispatch weekly newsletter to get expert tips to travel smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming of a future getaway or just an armchair trip? Take a look at ours 52 places to go in 2024.