Missing Home, the Chefs of Istanbul Hawaii Recreate the Flavors of Turkey

2023 SmallBiz Editor’s Choice Award winner: Mother and daughter team Nilgun Yildirim and Ahu Hettema source local ingredients at their Kaka‘ako restaurant.
05 23 Hb Best Of Small Business Hero 07 Istanbul Hawaii
Photo: Aaron Yoshino

Asian food is everywhere in Hawai‘i: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian restaurants abound. However, Turkish cuisine is a rare treat here and Istanbul Hawaii deliciously fills that niche.

Ahu Hettema says the restaurant was conceived during a period when, after more than 10 years away, she was longing to return to Turkey, but immigration problems got in the way. She got depressed and, for guidance, turned to her mother, Nilgun Yildirim, a chef specializing in Turkish cuisine for 30 years.

The more they cooked together, the more Hettema healed emotionally as the delicious Turkish dishes helped her remember where she came from. She ultimately decided that sharing her love of Turkish cuisine and its delectable flavors with Hawai‘i brought her joy.

Hettema says Istanbul Hawaii began as a farmers market stand in June 2015 and opened as a restaurant on Auahi Street in Kaka‘ako on June 27, 2020 – three months into the pandemic.

The restaurant had a bumpy start because of Covid restrictions, but business picked up quickly; Hettema says people are drawn to the restaurant’s ambience and gourmet cooking.

Turkish food “is largely the heritage of Ottoman cuisine, which can be described as a fusion and refinement of Mediterranean, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Eastern European cuisines,” she says. “Turkey is known for an abundance and diversity of food due to its flora, fauna and regional differentiation.”

The mother and daughter strive to get their ingredients locally, including hibiscus flowers, vanilla beans, Kaua‘i shrimp, Big Island lobster, macadamia nuts, most of its produce and some of its fish.

Popular dishes include the Meze platter (a collection of vegetarian appetizers), pirzola (aged lamb chops), levrek (fresh Mediterranean sea bass), Hatay kunefe (a cheese curd) and baklava. On Yelp, the restaurant has around a thousand reviews, with nearly two-thirds of them at five stars.

Hettema and her mother find joy in teaching various culinary techniques and Turkish cuisine to their cooks and chefs – many of whom had started there as dishwashers.

“Good food is about simple things: fresh ingredients, basic techniques, patience, consistency, love and respect for cooking in the kitchen,” she says. “(We help) our team to understand the power of spices just like an artist with hues, and which spices pair well with which protein and vegetables.”