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Chef Arzu: A Thoroughly Modern Istambullu Woman

Arzu Gurdamar isn’t just any Istanbul woman. In a traditional and increasingly conservative society she is part of what seems a modern minority: a woman going her own way. And not just any way.

Menus of Dai Pera

Arzu’s family graces her menus

After 12 years securing tenders for a shipping company and traveling the world, she left it all and opened her own restaurant.

“I hated corporate life and I didn’t want to be part of it and then just retire. Money means nothing if you’re not free,” she said.

That freedom came at a price and initially, her family simply didn’t understand.

“I had done everything right. I went to university, got a degree, got a secure job – and then I walked away from it all. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off.”

Now in her fourth year, there’s no question her Dai Pera Restaurant has become a petit chéri of Istanbul eateries with great reviews and even better, word of mouth, which is how I found Arzu.

A Culinary Family

Arzu’s choice should have come as no surprise. Her own mother owned a restaurant until recently, and she has been cooking for friends and family ‘nearly since birth.’ Her family was swept up in the turmoil of the Ottoman Empire and spent generations in the Balkans, bringing back a diversity of culinary traditions.

She has delved into many of these for inspiration.

Different foods at Dai Pera Restautant in Istanbul

From left prawns wrapped in crispy pastry, the famous biberli, and Arzu’s gift to me when she found out it was my birthday: chocolate tiramisu!

“One of the dishes on my menu is biberli, a cheese curd with toasted peppers and garlic. That came from my grandfather – he had it for breakfast every morning.”

Chef Arzu has settled in the rising quarter of Pera, rising because until a few years ago it went through an insalubrious and in some places downright dangerous phase. I remember staying at the Pera Palace Hotel before its massive renovation and reveling in the decrepit charm of the neighborhood’s streets. Just to engage in a bit of name-dropping, the same hotel in its heyday hosted (at different times) such literary luminaries as Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway and Pierre Loti, the turcophile French novelist.

Chef Arzu in her kitchenNo more. Today Pera buzzes with trendy boutiques and upmarket antique shops – and the Dai Pera, Arzu’s home away from home.

“It is like my home and can only accommodate 35 people, and that’s what I wanted, a place that felt like a modest, comfortable Istanbul home,” she said. “None of that Turkish belly-dancing design. I wanted everything modern and clean.”

Arzu has done plenty to make it feel personal, like adorning her menus with old family photos, a reminder of everyone who in some way made a contribution to her life.

The Dai Pera’s tiny kitchen is designed more for jostling than gliding and it’s hard to believe such delicious food emerges from such a minuscule space – but it does, from warm mezze to caramelized tenderloin, a thick piece of beef so juicy it was designed more to melt than to be chewed.

Want one? Here’s a gift from Arzu: her recipe.

Caramelized steak at Dai Pera

That irresistible steak

Grab a huge, top quality tenderloin steak, marinate it overnight (or even longer) in olive oil, rosemary and whole black peppers. When it’s ready, make the sauce by mixing red wine and soy sauce in equal amounts, honey, mustard, garlic powder, red pepper flakes and thyme, all of it to taste. Caramelize the sauce over low heat. Sear and seal the meat on a grill, then plunge it into the sauce, and cook slowly. When the sauce reaches the consistency of resin, you’re ready to eat.

It does sound easy, but I’m not sure mine would turn out as well as Arzu’s.

Kebab Culture and Café Society

Chef Arzu of Istanbul on her motorcycle

Chef Arzu on a road trip

“Actually I’m allergic to kebabs. They’re not from Istanbul anyway. And I don’t really like the cafe culture with its pastas and risottos. What I want is the kind of cooking you would get if you came to my house.”

If you did, chances are you’d be surprised at what she parks downstairs.

Istanbul women are known for their independence and business savvy. But few of them ride a Harley Davidson 1700 cc – only 13 in all of Turkey, actually.

Not unique, perhaps, but definitely going her own way – and taking some of us along for the ride.

Things you should know

  • You’ll find Dai Pera Restaurant down a short hill around the back of the Galatasaray Lisesi (school), the first tramway stop on Istiklal Street after you leave the tram terminal in Taksim.
  • If you like lamb, don’t miss the shank with plum molasses. Better yet, go with friends and get to taste everything.
  • The surrounding neighborhood, Pera, is stuffed with antique shops and trendy designer boutiques so make sure you have a wander after your meal.
  • Arzu spends most of her time in the kitchen but if you can manage to coax her out, you’ll meet a charming, knowledgeable woman of the world with strong opinions. Please say Hi from Women on the Road!
{ 3 comments… add one }
  • TravelMusts May 27, 2013, 3:57 am

    ” Money means nothing if you’re not free”
    Amen to that. I see so many businessmen wandering around 5 stars hotel but being so tired or so stressed and not being able to enjoy not even for a moment where they are or what they are doing only for the money…. Better to stay in a dumo and be merry than being super rich and miserable! Oh yeah!

  • Louise June 4, 2013, 10:48 pm

    Wish I read this when I was in Istanbul one week ago. Istanbul is wonderful. Food is great with so many tasty spices, fresh vegetables and fruit. I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending a vacation in Turkey.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 4, 2013, 10:56 pm

      I admit I’m in love with the city and with Turkish food! Not once did I feel it was monotonous – in the entire week I never ate the same thing twice.

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