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How Female Chefs Are Sparkling in Istanbul

How Female Chefs Are Sparkling in Istanbul

No bigger than chickpeas and blanketed with tangy yogurt and sizzling spiced butter, the manti were so good they could be inhaled by the dozen. My partner, Barry, and I devoured these lamb-filled Turkish dumplings, shaped into cute tufted shells, at Hatice Anne Ev Yemekleri, a homey spot in Istanbul’s Kuzguncuk neighborhood.

“There are so many unsung female cooks in this city,” said Benoit Hanquet as we saluted Merve Ataoglu, the restaurant’s kerchiefed manti maker. Mr. Hanquet, our guide for a Culinary Backstreets food tour of Istanbul, would later lead us on to Gule Kafe (fried doughnuts and crumbly sesame cookies) and Gunesin Sofrasi (a tasty mosaic of meze) — two more establishments serving delicious treats and overseen by women.

Exploring a city through its diverse restaurants is always rewarding. But inspired by Mr. Hanquet’s tour, I decided on a subsequent Istanbul visit to focus just on kitchens run by talented women. For all its glamour and rising international fame, Istanbul’s food world has until recently remained patriarchal — all dude celebrity chefs and swaggering ustas (masters) presiding over traditional specialties like baklava or kebab.

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

Indeed. In the decade and a half that I’ve spent time in this city, I’ve seen a generation of female chefs emerge, quietly defining Istanbul’s sophisticated style of cuisine — an idiom that often involves creative takes on Anatolian ingredients such as yogurt, tahini and pomegranate. And so, revisiting old favorites and checking out newcomers, I crossed the city in routes lit by female culinary star power.

Istanbul’s historical peninsula, the city’s old Byzantine-Ottoman core of imperial mosques and bazaars, dominated by the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia, is tourist central. Locals, however, barely come here, unless it’s to buy wedding gold at the Grand Bazaar — or to dine at Giritli. This modern meyhane (tavern) still feels like a delicious discovery, even after nearly two decades in business. Occupying a 19th-century Ottoman mansion and idyllic garden, Giritli is owned by the pioneering chef and restaurateur Ayse Sensilay, whose roots are in Crete (Giritli means Cretan in Turkish). Drawing on Hellenic family…

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