When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, a rough nation of warriors decided to settle down a little (though their armies actually kept conquering for another two centuries) and enjoy itself — particularly with food. Culinarily, it inherited traditions from Central Asia (yogurt, the layered bread that eventually became baklava), the Byzantines (a love of fish, keen connoisseurship of spring waters) and Baghdad (they were great collectors of medieval Arab cookbooks), but they transformed everything. For instance, they scrapped the venerable medieval craze for spices and nearly abandoned the antique practice of cooking meat with fruit.
Their empire became almost as obsessed with food as China; the life of Mevlevi order (Whirling Dervishes) was permeated with food imagery, and the very symbol of the Janissaries, the Sultans’ private troops, was the regimental caldron. The Turks are still great foodies, as persnickety as the French about the quality of ingredients. It’s very hard to sell a fruit or vegetable out of season in Istanbul.
They are unique in the Middle East for their keen interest in their food history, and here is where Priscilla Mary Işın comes in. She is an Englishwoman who lives in Turkey (her last name is pronounced more or less “uh-shun”) and writes in both English and Turkish. Bountiful Empire is her harvest of the records of Ottoman cuisine. In addition to the material recorded by the Turks themselves, she has apparently read every European traveler’s awe-struck report from the 16th through the 18th centuries (she does not dwell on the later period of decay, when Turkey was known as the Sick Man of Europe).
The resulting picture reminds me of certain Turkish paintings, crowded with people busily doing a multitude of things, all in colorful uniforms indicating their roles. I mean, really crowded. On some pages there’s so much detail that I found myself mostly just wallowing in the lushness.
The Ottomans were a proverbially organized people, maintaining caravanserais to ease merchants’ travel and charitable kitchens called imarets. Charity and hospitality were a prominent feature (even today, a visitor notices how naturally generous the Turks are). One of the things that helps explain the success of the Ottoman armies, it emerges from Işın’s account, is that they were simply better fed than their European counterparts.
It was above all the palace cuisine that impressed people about the Ottomans. Anybody who has visited Istanbul has seen the Topkapı Palace with its twelve kitchens. (There was actually a thirteenth, just for the Sultan.) Thousands of people (4,000 in the 17th century) were involved in feeding the palace residents, particularly catering to their raging sweet tooth. There were so many palace confectioners that they had a separate mosque from the other cooks.
As you’d expect, the Sultans had private sources for their ingredients and they got first pick of all imported ingredients. They also had regular supplies of snow and ice — what they didn’t use for cooling their sherbets and fruit compotes they sold to the public. One sultan had a room at his palace suspended over the Bosphorus with a trap door so he could fish privately at his leisure.
Istanbul was loaded with restaurants, including kosher establishments and places selling vegetarian dishes for Greek diners, who observed a lot of meatless days. For that matter, there were apparently countless holidays and life events (such as marriage, childbirth, first day of school) that called for special foods. On certain occasions, the Sultans would entertain themselves by organizing an event called a yağma (plunder), for which many plates of food and whole cooked animals would be laid out someplace and then either a military regiment or the general public would be invited to rush in and grab whatever they could. Sometimes, there might be a live bird inside the carcasses, for a rather carnivorous version of four-and-twenty blackbirds.
Among the interesting things Işın brings up is concerns the famous dish Circassian chicken (çerkes tavuğu), which is served with a walnut sauce. (In Damascus I once met woman who came from a Circassian tribe in southernmost Ukraine, and I asked her what she ate growing up. She said, “Pasta. Chicken, chicken, chicken.”) Işın says its popularity is probably due to the fact that by the 19th century most of the Sultans’ harem girls were the famously blue-eyed Circassians.
This is another important book of Middle Eastern food history from Reaktion Books, like the 17th-century Persian cookbook recently reviewed on this blog. Let’s hope they do more.