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The forgotten foods of an imperial palace
Why did so little of the Ottoman palace food make its way into Turkish kitchens?
With the country in suspense for the run-off election that will decide who gets the keys to the US$1.2 billion Turkish presidential palace, I find myself thinking about the palaces of times past. I live within walking distance of the Topkapı Palace, the administrative centre and home of sultans during much of the Ottoman era. Today, it’s a museum that’s well worth a visit, if for nothing else to contemplate and imagine the drama and history that has taken place on the exact steps you’re walking.
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The Topkapı palace kitchens, first built in the 1400s and later redesigned by the legendary architect Mimar Sinan after a great fire destroyed the original structure, formed an integral part of the building stock. While other parts may be of more historic importance, none of them would function without the kitchens.
As recounted in the brilliantly researched book 500 years of Ottoman Cuisine by Marianna Yerasimos, the palace served around 5,000 meals a day, a number which doubled or trebled on feast days, and it employed nearly 1,000 kitchen staff. A huge operation by any measure!
But what did they actually cook and serve in these kitchens? And what is its place within Turkish cuisine today?
The peculiarities of Ottoman palace cuisine
The palace kitchen was in fact not one kitchen, but a number of kitchens. They were mainly split by speciality, with separate kitchens (and staff) for pastries, breads, rice, kebabs, vegetables and sweets. The sultan, of course, had his own kitchen with its own staff, as did his close female relatives. Another kitchen cooked for palace employees, yet another for those living there. This set-up would go on to have a bigger influence on Turkish cuisine than the vast majority of dishes they served.
Despite menus suitably rich for a sultan, with plenty of meat, rice, oil and desserts, the eating habits of the Ottomans were surprisingly simple.
—Marianna Yerasimos, 500 years of Ottoman Cuisine
Yerasimos notes the simple eating habits of the Ottomans. They ate from low tables, with no chairs, table cloths, plates or cutlery, using their fingers to grab food from serving plates in the middle of the table. Only for dishes such as soups and stewed fruits would they use a spoon.
The meal itself, however, was never simple. A set of bowls with olives, salad, jam and pickles would remain on the table for the duration of the meal, while other dishes were served and removed in quick succession. Visitors from the West noted that (at major events) more than 100 dishes could be served at a single feast!
Each meal would include a variety of savoury and sweet dishes which, unusually for us, appear to have been dispersed throughout the meal. A 17th century menu retrieved by Yerasimos shows mackerel and red mullet followed by a dessert, then tripe soup and more dessert. Imagine!
Indeed, the mixing of sweet and savoury is perhaps what most clearly distinguishes Ottoman cuisine. Stews and rice dishes would be sweetened by honey, dried fruits and fresh fruits, no doubt inspired by the neighbouring Persian imperial kitchens.
As would be expected of a trading city of Istanbul’s stature, spices were in high demand among the elites. The Eastern influence was evident, with one or more of black pepper, saffron, coriander (cilantro), cumin and cinnamon appearing in most dishes. Ginger, cardamom and cloves were also utilised, though not as often. While some recipes would make use of parsley or mint, herbs weren’t widely used.
What do Turks think of Ottoman cuisine today?
However grand it might have been at its peak, the food of the palace largely didn’t spill over to the rest of Turkish society. It’s a telling sign that the few restaurants specialising in Ottoman palace cuisine today, almost exclusively serve tourists.
What’s this!? Why did you put something sweet in it!?
—Basically any Turk being presented with a sweet and savoury food
Ask any Turk today about adding fruit or honey to meats, and they’ll no doubt shudder before telling you they despise any mixing of sweet and savoury, the most recognisable trait of Ottoman palace food. They only make a couple of exceptions, such as iç pilavı (recipe), a rice pilaf for special occasions that’s sweetened with currants and cinnamon, or tavukgöğsü, a milk pudding prepared with a small amount of finely shredded chicken breast (though you’ll only notice the texture, not the taste, of the chicken).
Another trademark of contemporary Turkish cuisine is the lack of spices. Most dishes start with a basic sauté of oil, onions and tomato paste. The only widely used spices are black pepper and the mild red pepper flakes known as pul biber. Cumin remains essential to the unique flavour of Turkish meatballs and its vegetarian versions, like lentil meatballs (recipe). Other spices popular with the Ottomans are now primarily seen as ingredients of natural health remedies, with only a small handful of dishes using them in food.
The fresh herbs not favoured by the palace kitchens, on the other hand, are essential to contemporary Turkish cooking. Mint, dill and parsley are cheap and sold in large bunches for use in salads, cold dishes, as refreshing garnish or in sautés, though coriander (cilantro) has completely fallen out of favour.
The lasting legacy of the palace kitchens
Of course, it’s not all black and white. Some of the dishes served by the Ottomans are still popular in Turkey. Not least among the sweets, where baklava (recipe) comes to mind. It’s by far the most famous of dishes thought to have originated in the palace kitchens.
Many other dishes that are alive and well today first made their way to the palace as dishes already popular with the public, such as various soups, börek or pickles. While the palace kitchens probably helped develop many of those dishes further, it’s fairly safe to assume they’d be part of Turkish cuisine today regardless – though some of them might have remained local specialities rather than becoming the national treasures they are today.
The main lasting legacy of the Topkapı palace kitchen is perhaps not its food, but rather its organisation. The chefs were highly specialised, many of them spending their whole lives making a single type of food, such as meatballs, baklava or börek. As the kitchen was disbanded at the end of the Ottoman era, many of these chefs went on to make a living on the private market doing what they’d been doing all their lives. Some opened fast-food eateries selling only meatballs (köfte), others small bakeries selling only börek (recipe). While capitalist globalisation has certainly set its mark in Turkey over the past few decades, these small and highly specialised eateries remain an important feature of Turkish towns and cities.
A few recipes to try
I realise I haven’t presented the dishes I’ve mentioned in the way that’s so common today, littered with superlatives in an attempt to get you to click on the link to read the recipe. That doesn’t mean they aren’t tasty or worth a try. Quite the opposite!
Here are those dishes I’ve mentioned in the post and for which I already have a recipe on my blog A kitchen in Istanbul:
I’ve also got a couple of Ottoman-era recipes lined up, but thought I’d send one of them to your inbox ahead of publishing them on the blog. Please vote below for which one you’d like, and I’ll send it to you early next week!
Kadınbudu köfte is an interesting and very tasty way of making meatballs, mixing the meat with boiled rice, then coating the meatballs in flour and egg before deep frying. This makes for uniquely flavourful and juicy meatballs. The dish is also notable for its name, meaning “ladies’ thighs”!
Hünkar beğendi combines grilled aubergine (eggplant), bechamel sauce and a simple tomato based lamb stew, and is one of my mother’s favourite recipes. It’s one of the later inventions of the palace, incorporating both the relatively recently arrived tomato and the continental influence of bechamel sauce.
So tell me, which of these should I send you next week?
A note about the elections
In case last week’s post on the Turkish elections got you curious about the outcome, here’s a short primer.
President Erdoğan’s AK Party recorded its worst result since seizing power in 2002. Thanks to strong performances by its more staunchly islamist and ultranationalist allies, however, the ruling alliance retained its parliamentary majority.
In the presidential contest, no candidate reached 50% of the votes in the first round, triggering a run-off. The opposition’s joint candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu fell well short, securing only 45% of the votes to Mr. Erdoğan’s 49.5%. At this point, anything but a comfortable win for Mr. Erdoğan in the second round would be a huge upset.
The big story of the election was instead Turkish nationalists, who appeared to pick up most of the voters disillusioned with either of the main parties and candidates. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu immediately upped his rhetoric with a pledge to send the many millions of people who have arrived from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan back to their home countries. The presidential contest will be decided on Sunday 28 May.
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