The bright spots of dandelion yellow and sleek tabletops at Makana in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district are a far cry from the cozy interiors of the Uighur restaurants dotting the multicultural streets of Zeytinburnu and Çapa. But after one bite of Makana’s dry-fried lagman, we know: Uighur cuisine has arrived in Beşiktaş.
The neighborhood needs it. With three universities in walking distance of its formerly working-class çarşı (downtown), Beşiktaş has become a central location for Istanbul’s more youthful crowds, who have returned with gusto after three months of empty streets and sporadic lockdowns due to Covid-19. Yet compared to other Istanbul neighborhoods, it has had a dearth of original, quality places to eat. In the last seven years, the esnaf (small tradesman) culture of the çarşı has slowly been overtaken by trendy dessert and coffee shops, cookie-cutter breakfast and burger joints, and suspiciously cheap büfeler selling chicken wraps and absolutely average döner kebab. The saying around here goes, “When one door closes, another café opens.”
At the same time, as new generations of Istanbullus grow more and more culinarily curious, younger Turks are starting to wake up to and embrace the “foreign” food around them. What you’d typically find in the immigrant-rich districts of Fatih and Zeytinburnu is trickling out to more hip areas like Kadiköy and Beşiktaş. These days, you don’t have to travel far to find Istanbul’s distinct version of international food, which hails from Lebanon, Georgia and “East Turkestan,” the autonomous Xinjiang region of northwestern China that’s home to the Uighurs (and where many are currently detained in mass internment camps).
Makana’s owner, 31-year-old Necat Kurban, recognized this opportunity. For him, a Uighur restaurant in Beşiktaş was a numbers game. “I realized, I didn’t want to open a place for Uighurs,” he says. “Though of course when they come here, they approve of the food,” he makes sure to note. The Uighur-heavy neighborhoods of Istanbul had enough authentic restaurants and “I had nothing to add there,” he says. “Now Turks, they are wanting something different. But Turkish students are buying spaghetti at the market and calling it Italian food. Why do that when you can come here for something actually authentic? Our food is tangier, spicier – our noodles are unique.”
This statement is punctuated by the sound of Sayed, the noodle chef, slapping his freshly made dough on the counter. Soon he will start hand-pulling the two types of lagman served at Makana as Xinjiang-born Anas, the food chef, prepares the sauce. Necat says they spent a lot of time researching just what to serve. “I know most of the Uighur restaurateurs in Istanbul, and we studied what they were doing. We talked to them to see what sells best, especially for Turks, seeing as we would be opening in less immigrant-heavy neighborhoods,” he says. With four entrees, three appetizers and a delightfully vinegary carrot salad, Makana’s carefully calculated menu is small, much smaller than any other Uighur restaurant in town. “Their menus are huge,” Necat says. “There are lots of options and people feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Also, Turks and others living here know about kabob and what we Uighurs have that’s similar to Turkish food. Why not focus on what we do that’s different? We narrowed down our menu to the dishes that everyone loves, Uighurs and Turks,” he says.
At the top of the list is his dana etli makana, thick and chewy lagman flash-fried with beef and peppers and coated with a spicy, semi-sweet glaze. We could eat it twice a week and never tire of the dense, full noodle and the expertly seasoned beef. Each bite is a whole experience, a punch of flavor and, even more satisfying, texture.
Peering inside the goşnan, a flat and fried meat pie, it’s incredible that ground beef, black pepper and fresh green and red peppers are all it takes for such a complex taste. Then there’s the whopping portion of kebaplı lamen, a dish definitely for two or more – a sharing custom you see at most Uighur restaurants. Though no item shines as bright as the dana etli makana, the kebaplı lamen comes close. Swimming in a brothy sauce full of meat, mushrooms and peppers, the boiled noodles – flat and wide, more akin to Thai pad see ew – do all the talking.
“Why not focus on what we do that’s different? We narrowed down our menu to the dishes that everyone loves, Uighurs and Turks.”
It’s not just the size of the menu that’s different at Makana. Necat points to three innovations of his that he decided on while watching other eateries at work: The noodles are a touch drier than at other Uighur restaurants, diners can select how spicy they want their food and there are chicken alternatives. “We’re the only ones who serve chicken with the lagman and, honestly, it’s pretty popular,” he says. “Maybe one-third of people are ordering it over the beef.”
Necat peers through the glass partition into the kitchen and says with some pride, “I can cook anything we sell, but I hired a chef. Right now, that chef is Uighur. My plan is to one day hire a Turkish chef so I can teach them our food.” While it’s clear from our conversation, Makana’s interior and the student-friendly marketing that the young Necat (who looks like a student himself) has a mind for business, he reveals that he can’t help but be sentimental: His real mission is to spread love for his people’s cuisine. He explains the meaning of Makana, which on the surface appears to be a play on the Turkish words for pasta and place, makarna and mekan, respectively. “I actually read it backwards a bit, ana [mother] and makan, not just place, but vatan: homeland.” He admits that these days, that’s in his heart more than anything else. Born in Tianjin, a Chinese city with a sparse population of Uighurs, Necat has always been a minority. He’s lived on his own since 17, and worked in tourism for most of his adult life. But after growing weary of political upheaval and having to spend 25 days of each month on the road, he decided to save up so he could open his own restaurant. “Tourism is affected by politics. Politics doesn’t really touch food. People still have to eat,” he says.
It’s a sentiment that proved true even during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns. “Of course, business slowed down, but a large portion of our orders have since moved online,” Necat says. With the social distancing, health and safety, and disinfectant regulations set in place at eateries by the government, crowds have returned to the çarşı, but almost 50 percent of Makana’s customers are now digital, and folks from outside Beşiktaş are demanding door-service lagman, too. Necat is even gearing up to open another location across the Bosphorus in Kadıköy, where they will continue to hire out a disinfectant crew to come in every day, encourage diners to eat outside and enforce social distancing measures. “No matter the conditions, young people are interested in trying new food,” he says. He motions his head toward a group of masked university students walking past us in Beşiktaş. “And our food isn’t pricey. It tastes different, and people here, they love it.”