Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
October 19, 2021
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Mangia Bene

    The first order of business for the Ottoman government in the Middle Ages was the provisioning of wheat for the city of Istanbul, the capital. The waqf, the religious institution, played a major role in provisioning the city, with the qadi, a religious magistrate, responsible for the task. The charitably endowed hospices of the city distributed thousands of loaves of bread and meals each day to hundreds of people. The imarets, charitable organizations that fed thousands of people who did not have an independent source of income, had large staffs of cooks and larders. They were the closest thing to today’s public soup kitchens and they gave leftover food to widows and children.

    According to the seventeenth-century Ottoman scholar Evliya Çelebi’s famous study, there were 26,000 cultivated fields in the four districts of the capital and 57,000 farmers. Their production in all likelihood went directly to the imperial palaces of the sultan. Istanbul was a huge entrepôt where the ships of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and the caravans of Thrace, the Balkans, and Anatolia came to sell their indispensable products for living. The qadi set the base price. The mübasir (dock expeditor) or the yasakchi (advance man) intervened to speed up the loading of ships and hurry their movements about the capital. Provisioning the capital also meant feeding the imperial troops of the palace and the numerous troops caserned around the city.

    The state barley silos at Eminönü received three hundred shiploads a year, over fifty thousand metric tons, assuming a load of 180 tons per ship. Istanbul’s bakers bought their wholesale flour from the state-run flour exchange, the kapan-i dakik, located at the entrance to the Golden Horn, which housed four independent shops belonging to flour merchants. The bakers were organized by product, so there were neighborhood bakers and bakers specializing in a product such as hardtack (peksimid) for imperial army and navy stores, as well as ekmek, a kind of French bread, and yufka, a thin wheat flour pastry. Regulations going back to Mehmed II’s reign (1451-1481) required bakers to stock a minimum of one month supply of flour.

    There were two types of provisioning going on in Istanbul: one for the population and one for the palace guard and the troops. A document from 1674 gives precise numbers of head of livestock brought to Istanbul for slaughter: 199,900 beef, 3,965,760 mutton, and 2,877,400 lamb. During the same period the palace needed 325,228 mutton and lamb (deducting 96,000 for the Janissaries).

    It was prescribed in Islam that one of a ruler’s charitable duties was to feed his people. Because of this responsibility elaborate organizations were set up to fulfill the requirements of feeding people. Large kitchens were built in the palaces and public feasts became important. A public feast was a privilege and a duty of the ruler. In Ottoman society the kitchen had a central importance because it was a social institution. The kitchen, on one hand, was central to the ruling classes who had to feed their huge retinues, numbering thousands of people. On the other hand, the kitchen symbolized the bonds of people with the ruler. The sultan staffed his kitchens with the most renowned chefs, many of whom came from Bolu on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and many of Turkey’s best chefs still do.

    Although it was later connected to Islamic theological precepts, the practice of public feast had roots in particularly Turkic customs of Central Asia as we know from the Kutadgu bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory), a royal advice book written in Turkish in 1070, that says entertaining people with food and drink are among the chief virtues of a prince. This practice of public feasts (toy) was introduced to the Islamic world by the Seljuks, a Muslim Turkish tribe that was the precursor to the Ottoman Turks. The empire they established in Anatolia after the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor at Manzikert (Malazgirt) in 1071 concerned the Christian West, which saw a new Muslim dynasty in the East as a threat; the establishment of the Seljuk governance was one of the motivating factors behind the Crusades.

    The sultan became personally interested in the food served because society at large considered it as proof of his concern for the society’s well-being. Public feasts came to be held on religious holidays, such as the night of the Prophet’s birth or the end of Ramadan. Special dishes were created for a variety of holidays, such as the helva (sweets) served for the Sheker Bayrami, the feast of the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

    The beginnings of a true Turkish cuisine are to be found in the palace kitchens of the sultans. This was a refinement over the army kitchens of the Janissaries, which in turn was a refinement over the food of the original Turkic tribes that moved into Anatolia from Central Asia before the eleventh century, which was mostly boiled and grilled lamb. But even today lamb is the most common meat in Turkish cuisine, where it is used in kebabs such as the döner kebabi, thin slices of meat pressed together and spit-roasted, small pieces of meat on a skewer (shish kebab), and meatballs (köfte). Beef is not eaten directly but used to make certain kinds of sausages and above all, pastirma, or dried beef. In the Middle Ages, there were a hundred pastirma shops in Istanbul located mostly in Galata, Top-hane, and Odun Kapisi.

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]

    The palace of the sultan was described as a bottomless pit of food because he fed a huge palace population and didn’t care about expense. Diners were started off with meze, little plates of appetizing food. One report tells us that the sultan’s table had salads of “olives, capers, radishes, beets, green garlic, cucumbers, rose flowers and other seasonal things.” Vessels called martaban were used for carrying meat, such as lamb, spit-roasted chickens cut up into pieces, fricasseed mutton with butter and onions, fried pigeons that were then oven-baked with sugar and rose water, and chickens stuffed with rice and onions and served in a bouillon with eggs and cinnamon. Little meatballs were made with onions and rice and wrapped in borage or hazelnut leaves. Pigeon torts were served, as was a dish of goose liver chopped with eggs, parsley, almonds, onions, cinnamon, nutmeg, Corinth raisins, and pigeon. The soup might be a puree of green peas with chicken bouillon and fingers of bread fried in butter with egg yolks.

    In 1527, there were 5,457 palace servants to feed. The palace kitchen was enormous. The Topkapi palace alone had several kitchens: the imperial kitchen, the confectioner’s kitchen, and two bake-houses. Within the imperial kitchen was the kitchen for the chief eunuch of the palace (supervising steward) and the kitchen for the palace pages. A special kitchen called the kushane was reserved exclusively for the sultan himself. When Süleyman I the Magnificent rebuilt the palace, it was a grandiose construction with domes and chimneys housing ten kitchens, each serving a special group. By 1679, the head of the imperial larder alone supervised 134 people.

    The number of cooks in the imperial kitchens numbered 260 in 1510 and grew to 1,570 by 1570. The cooks were organized into a corps that was then divided into companies, like a military organization. The corps was headed by a chief with the rank of aga (lord or master). He was assisted by a lieutenant and a secretary. As with any profession, there were masters, foremen, and apprentices. Servants in the store rooms formed another corps. Under the head of each corps were bakers, butchers, sweet makers, yoghurt makers, vegetable keepers, makers of ring bread (semit bread), keepers of ice and snow, keepers of herbs, keepers of poultry, tinners of the copper utensils, makers of candles, water carriers, and wheat pounders. Waiters made up an independent group.

    The sultan’s cooks competed to please their master by preparing special dishes of their own creation. The sultan showed pleasure by giving rewards. Thus, the Ottoman palace was considered the center of Ottoman Turkish cooking and was where creative chefs were trained and where the imperial Turkish court cuisine evident today developed. For scholars interested in this topic, there are detailed records on the ingredients used in archival kitchen expenditure books.

    For the kitchens of the Topkapi palace alone, the annual consumption of lamb was about 1,270 tons. The other three palaces consumed 458 tons annually. Besides cereals, rice formed a good part of the diet of the Turks, especially the well-to-do and the palace. European travelers in Turkey in the Ottoman era always remarked on how the best foods were rice dishes. For centuries rice was at the center of all Turkish cookery. One of the most popular Turkish dishes is pilaf, served with meat or fish.

    In the sixteenth century, ordinary rice came from Egypt (actually as tribute), the principal supplier of Istanbul, leaving from the port of Damietta. But the highly prized very long-grain or pilaf rice came from Anatolia and Persia and it was more expensive because of tariffs, and the longer distance, in the case of Persian rice. All in all, though, it does not seem that commerce in rice was subject to the severe regulation that wheat and meat were, although there was a corporation of rice merchants numbering about four hundred people.