Serife Ayakta (meaning standing in honor), carries a legacy in her name from the maternal and paternal sides of her family. Her grandmother instilled in her, “Whatever happens do not lay down, get up.”
Serife grew up near Istanbul,Turkey. After an earthquake killed her mother and destroyed her home and baby furniture business, her husband’s friend urged, “Go to the United States. America has big dreams for your children.” Serife explains, “My husband and I decided to come here to see if it was okay for our children’s future.” Upon their arrival they spent time with distant relatives and friends that had previously immigrated to New York City.
Relocating to New Jersey in 2001 with their three children, Serife, began working at a daycare center. She loved the babies, but when the job would not provide the opportunity for her to travel to Santa Barbara for a week with her daughter, Serfie said, “I love the children, but I love my children too!” Her strong sense of motherhood and family values led to the decision to quit her job.
Now having an abundance of time, Serife spent more hours in the kitchen cooking Turkish food that she could find in America, but wasn’t nearly as delicious as the traditional food she enjoyed in her home country. Turkish-Americans got wind of Serife’s home cooking and offered to buy her Turkish cuisine. Serife’s most popular dish, manti, consisted of small dumplings that she distinctly shaped into stars. She filled the signature dish with beef, or spinach and feta cheese or mushrooms. Realizing that her small operation could become something greater, Serife called the owners of several Turkish restaurants in New York. They were more than happy to buy her manti.
Needing a larger space to grow her business, Serife rented a storefront in Delran where a “small Turkish village” exists. Serife said, “A lot of Turkish women at that time didn’t have a car and could not speak English. I wanted to give them the opportunity to get out of the house and come to work. My mother always taught me to help others.” Together, the women worked to uphold the tradition of Turkish cooking in America while sharing memories and stories from their native land and new home in America. It wasn’t long before the business expanded from shipping the manti to customers into a restaurant of its own. Star Manti is named after the dish that fostered the success of the business. Other dishes are titled after different cities from Serife’s childhood and life experiences in Turkey, such as, “Gorali, that’s named after where I went to high school. After school we would eat hot dogs and Turkish potato salad at my favorite restaurant.” Serife’s pride lights up the entire space at Star Manti when she shares her story and talks about her children’s college successes, careers, family life and their desire to carry forth Turkish traditions. She affirms, “We did a good job because we came here and we started the new life.”
The napkin notes of gratitude shared on the walls at Star Manti tell even more of Serife’s story. Come meet Serife and experience her exquisite cuisine this Saturday, July 28 at Taste of Poland and Turkey 10:00- 2:00 p.m., 30 Irvin Avenue at the Tastefully South Jersey Exhibition.
The exhibit is an exploration into folk art and culture through the lens of food traditions in New Jersey and features cultural artisans, fine artists and artifacts centered around foodways such as recipes, cookbooks, paintings, photographs and integrated with food tasting, dance, music, and storytelling performances. The event is free and open to the public.
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