THE OTTOMAN CUISINE
One of the renowned three cuisines
The Turkish tribes that once took the long trek from Asia to Anatolia had carried with much success this rich culture which stemmed from the Far and which they had enriched with the materials gathered from every country along their pathway to their new homeland cradling so many civilisations. It was quite logical that the culinary culture would receive its right place in this process.
The task in their new homeland was communicated to the newcomers with the sacrosanct order of “feed the hungry, cloth the poor, rebuild the ruins and increase the population”. Thus have evolved, developed and acquired renown the Ottoman culture.
There were a lot of elements to develop this flexible cultural acquis in the new homeland: The country was first of all encircled by three seas: Black Sea, Aegean Sea and Mediterranean and the two straits (İstanbul strait and Dardanelles) connecting them were offering their unmatched fertility to the squatters while the Anatolia, with the benefit of living all four seasons at the same time was providing fresh vegetables and fruits to the entire country that had the luxury of a springtime in the West, summer in the South and a mild autumn along the Black Sea coast. Don’t we still have the same pleasure? Which encompassed the Anatolia and the European soils of the empire, together with the culinary culture constituting and important component of the former.
These conditions have made the Ottoman kitchen one of the three grands of the world.
Of course, this culture is in a continuous process of change due to the major changes in the new conditions. Its chances of being permanent fade out a little more everyday. The human being has little opportunity today to gather around the family table at home. The changing work practices convert the warm meal habits into devouring toasts and sandwiches and restaurants become preferred grounds for dinner parties. The modern medicine takes a somewhat dim view of fatty meals, pasta and pastries, once much appreciated by previous generations and those afraid of overweight lay emphasis on easier meals with the urge of dieting.
Thus the new world’s phagotic systems dissociate themselves from the old one under its own rules.
Yet, a careful study of the old system reveals that it had adopted several precautions, in particular in the field of health, and that the ancients had their own yardsticks under the then prevailing conditions.
Since our topic is the Ottoman kitchen, let’s hear what a wise Ottoman had once said on eating pastas, desserts and sweets around those rich tables:
“Who eats little becomes angel,
Who eats much finds its danger.”
Be careful, dear friends, watch it. The master calligraphers used these sayings to produce artistic inscriptions that embellished the dining room walls:
“He who eats little eats everyday.
He who eats much eats once” or,
“Mouth eats, face is ashamed.”
Just like the following verses saying that gourmandise will get the people nowhere:
“So much food these teeth have seen,
Neither gold, nor silver have they been.”
Let’s then return to the past and examine how and when ate these prudent, jovial and wise men.
The Ottoman kitchen was hot merely a space where food was prepared. The place of the table was extremely important in the ingredients used, in the tableware, in the side dishes (types of salads for each different dish), in the beverages and in the breads.
The respect of the people for each other was extremely important in this mensal culture.
The Ottoman was very careful for making sure that the smell of the food being cooked did not bother, others, since these odours might be disturbing the not-so-well-off neighbours. For this reason, talks that might lead to such feelings were carefully avoided. The principle in such conversation was “not to make the rich ashamed, and the poor awed” while the proverbs had make this rule almost an iron-clad principle: “Problems arise when one eats and the other watches.”
The Ottoman tradition foresaw a variety of tables
- Family table,
- Guest table,
- Collective meal table,
- Special day table,
- Wedding and circumcision tables,
- Rhamadan table,
- Muharrem (the first month of lunar calendar) table,
- Hammam table,
- Palace table.
THE FAMILY TABLE
The Ottoman family eats twice a day: a brunch and a dinner. The centre of the table is the father. If there are grandparents, they sit at both sides of the father while the mother is between the children and helps them. A cloth is spread on the ground and a collapsible sexapodal atop supports the meal tray.
Spoons are arranged around the tray.
The Islamic Prophet had an important order for the family table: “Eat the family meals together with the whole family, because they bring prosperity to the whole family.”
The families generally obeyed this order.
Around the tray are placed cushions on which the family members sit slightly askew, with their right arms closer to the tray.
The water jug is outside of the tray, on the cloth.
The first course is generally a soup, served in an oversized copper tureen. The meal starts with a prayer by the father. There is not much conversation during the meal, laughters are discouraged and those who do not like the meals served never say so. Lips are never smacked and bread is consumed in small lumps torn off the slices and never bitten off. Those in a morose mood are silently warned to pull themselves together. Water is poured into the glasses of the thirsty by one of the younger members of the family and the rest awaits until he drinks it off in order to preserve his right in the meal.
The food is taken from the same pot. There were at first no forks and knives, which reached the family table only with the advent of the Restoration Period and everybody gradually learned to use them.
The soup is followed by a meat dish with pilaf, then a cold olive oil dish or a fritter, crescendoed with a dessert or fruit.
At the end of the meal, the father utters the prandiolithany. All members of the family throw a grain of salt into their mouths and thank the cooker for the meal.
The grown daughter of the family then proceeds to the kitchen to brew the after-meal coffee. While the grandparents are still seated, the rest pick up the tableware and carry them to the kitchen. Bread crumbs are never left on the floor.
THE GUEST TABLE
Invitations extended generally to close relatives, friends neighbours were subject to some minor modifications. Depending on the proximity of the invitees, tables were laid separately for males and females or two separate tables were placed in the same room. A third possibility was to arrange the invitations for females during the daytime and for males in the evening when they returned from work.
The host usually extended the invitation by saying “Let’s have the dinner with us tonight, to partake what Lord has given us.”
The invitees used to come with an appropriate gift for the host or for the children. This custom did not apply much for the all-male invitations. The guest lady presented the gift package to the hostess with a statement like “This is but a small gift to you” to which she received a reply “Well, thank you; but why did you go into such troubles.”
It is on the records that the guests were given each a spoonful of honey or jam, suggestive of a wish to eat sweet and talk sweet.
There were also the family’s God’s guests dropping by during the meal time. They were first asked whether they had their meals or whether they were hungry. The host was never taken in surprise, never displayed his anger even if he were upset and always seated the guest at the table by saying that the “guest ate what he found, and not what he hoped”. If the thought the guest was not full, he frequently offered the cheese or salad bowls to him. Where the guest declined to partake them, he used to say: “A guest is a cherished member of the family, please take some more” while pushing the bowl toward him.
The guest always thanked to the host who filled his glass by saying: “Be as holy as the water” or, if the server was a young person, he would utter: “May the grace of God be upon you.”
The meal of which the menu depended on the family’s wealth, the season of the year and the city where they lived, started with a soup in the winter, followed by a meat dish, a pilaf, an olive oil dish or pasta and a dessert. When the ritual ended, the oldest of the guests thanked the host, recited a prayer and closed the meal with a poetical statement like:
“Let the divine halo be on your table,
“Let the scourges be after from you,
“Let our hosts forever be well-off”.
Here are sole expressions used in these invitations by way of thanks:
“Guest is the pride of the house, thank you.
“A guest is forever welcome.
“Say hello to a Turk and don’t worry about your meal.
Cheese and bread are good to be had.
The best of them all perhaps the following:
“Think not what you will eat, but what you will make guest eat.”
COOLLECTIVE MEAL TABLES
The collective table tradition, obviously an offspring of our way of social life, was widespread at the garrisons, shrines, templets, caravanserais, schools and inns. Costs of the meals there were met generally by foundations.
The meal time was announced by the kitchenmaster from an elevated podium outside the building from which he used to intone aloud the phrase of “Come ye, to the meal”. Everybody would then immediately abandon work, wash their hands and proceed immediately to where the food was distributed. Everyone knew their places in the hierarchy, sit on their habitual cushions, cover their knees with the huge handwoven floorspread and respectfully await the trepolithany to be recited by the tablemaster.
Then all spoons dipped immediately into the huge tureen and so began the meal ritual. Rules of the family table were also valid here.
Talk, laughters, refusing food, biting into the bread slices and reaching for what belonged to others were all disapproved.
At the end of the meal, the tablemaster or a person that he selects for this purpose read the prayer and everybody took a grain of salt into their mouths.
The collective meal tables were as a rule male domains, and the women were not allowed there.
We find another sort of collective table in the almshouses, which were public kitchens intended to feed the poor. They were closely related with the Islamic traditions of zeqat (donation of one-fortieth of the annual revenue for philanthropic purposes) and fitre (handing to the poor the foodstuffs for one day or its cash value). Meals in the almshouses were free; all costs were borne by the foundations established by well-to-do citizens. Around four to five thousand meals were used to be offered a day in İstanbul and this figure rose even higher during religious holidays and festivity days.
Persons establishing foundations were held to donate their property to the almshouses run by the former as a requirement for the continuity of the service from these kitchens. A special type of bread, similar in appearance to a pampernickel, was used to be baked by the almshouses.
No matter which meal was involved, coffee constituted an indispensable finish. It had a certain importance also in the daily life and had their own anecdotes, expressions and traditions.
Coffee fad, coffee peddlar, divination in coffee dregs, coffee cup and the dicton of “one cup of coffee entails forty years of affinity.”
The types of coffee were bitter, sweet, medium-sugared-quasi-sugared.
Depending on the time of the day, brewing was different. The morning coffee had two forms. The first was the one taken as soon as one got up in the morning and the other followed the brunch. Sometimes milk was added to them.
A cup of coffee go get rid of the fatigue, to divine from the dregs, to help gossiping among the women, to accompany the breaks in the work and to act as the final of a dinner.
In the Turkish traditions, one would normally extend the invitation for a meal by saying: “Please come and have a cup of coffee with us.” The occasional get-togethers of coffee fads produced slogans such as “tobacco with the coffee, a mixture pleasing thee.”
Let’s not forget, however, those preferring tea to coffee following a meal:
“The tea a very wise man discovered,
Two in the morning, one before the bed.”
BREAD AND YONDER
The bread was a bliss formerly baked at home ovens in cooperation with the neighbouring ladies in certain days of the week. It is certain that a meal without bread in an Ottoman table was imagined.
It use to be concocted with wheat, rye or maize flour or bran and acquired such forms as loaf, pitta, pumpernickel, flatbread, roll and muffin.
The cornflour bread of the Black Sea region and the baguettes of İstanbul were deemed to be the refined types. Needless to say, the time plays around with our bread and changes its shape and content. For example, the pitta is something we see only during the Rhamadan.
When the Ottoman began to become influenced by the Western life, changes occurred also in baking the bread and the bakery bread gradually replaced its home-baked counterpart.
The former was first not appreciated by the women. They even scorned it at first and disdained those buying bakery bread during their coffeeklatsches.
Ladies switching to bakery bread expressed their joy by these verses:
“Barns became now palaces,
“Now same are all classes.”
“Gone to grocer’s shop now the bread is,
“Hunger’s grip will now all of us squeeze.”
Of course, the hunger will not do anything of this sort to us. Being an indispensable foodstuff the bread will surely and certainly continue embellishing our tables with all its taste and grace.
Therefore, let’s place the sliced bread piles on the table, and go on with our chat regarding the Ottoman kitchen.
Until the reign of Emporer Murat II, father of Mohammed the Conqueror, the meals were simple and varieties were rare in both the imperial and popular tables. The development of the Ottoman cuisine actually began when Murat II ascended to the throne.
The Ottoman meals are known to begin always with a broth. Deemed to be healthy foods the broths were concocted with beef or chicken stock, yoghurt, fish stock, to which were added rice, parched wheat, ground minestrone, dried or fresh vegetables and roots. As such, the stomach was being conditioned for the courses to follow.
The wedding, yoghurt, minestrone and vegetable soups were considered as premium components particularly of the brunches.
Since the broths and bread were the mainstays of the table, taste in the former was perforce a precondition.
When mention is made of soups, it is not easy to put an end to it. The industrious ladies of those days easily exceed a hundred when they begin to cite the names of various soups.
One evidence of the soup’s importance among Ottoman of the may be found in the worries of mothers and grandmothers for not being able to marry away the family’s young daughter “who couldn’t cook a decent soup”. The advice given to the daughters who did not share this belief was:
“What good to a dumb bead the words do,
“What good to a plain soup the spices do,
“What good to the family a spinster does”.
Red meats like mutton, lamb and veal, white ones like fish and fowl were the building blocks of the homemade meals. Some of these meats, seasoned with tomato paste, onions and garlic, were cooked for a long time over a slow fire while the kebabs and meatballs were prepared in pans or grills and consumed together with pastes of local vegetables, pickles, green salads and yoghurt. Eggplant salad, fried potatoes, shish kebab and swirling kebab were definitely brought to the table together with tomatoes and peppers.
The meats cooked in a brazier, terracotta bowl or jug and in a pit filled with hot ashes were followed according to the general practice by a pilaf.
Importance of dishes of fowl and game should not be minimised. Among the ambroses of the dinner invitations were the circassian chicken and filled Turkey.
Bluefish, pelamide, mullet, plaice, sole, mackerel and bream caught in the Marmara Sea, turbot from the Black Sea and anchovies which are prepared in an untold number of ways plus chippers from the Aegean were among the elites of the sea foods.
The fish in fried, grilled, boiled, smoked, baker and steamed forms were among the much appreciated health foods and much sought- after by the gourmet. They were frequently demanded also by the Ottoman emperors. As for the read meats, the kebabs of Maraş, Adana and Urfa origin had later penetrated into the entire country. Such new dishes as pureed eggplant royal, imam’s, choice, priest’s kebab, circassian chicken and lady’s thing had begun to embellish the tables and those that seek the excellence in life had developed a preference for tastier foods. Thus grew the fame of the Ottoman kitchen.
Naturally, the dishes that I cited above are but a fraction of what this kitchen had up in its sleeve. Various local dishes of seafood also joined the long list. Fish and other products from lakes and rivers were hot late in joining the bandwagon.
The part of the geography, seasons and climate of this country may certainly not be denied in this culinary wealth.
Shrimps in their pane, salad, pilaf and grilled forms are still among us.
Yet everyone knows that the anchovy, fish with which are infatuated the Black Sea people, outdistanced all other fish species with its fried, grilled, baked, souped, stewed, steamed, smoked and salted versions.
AS FOR THE PILAFS
The pilaf types, accompanying majority of meat dishes and such dried vegetable as white beans, were made of rice, parched wheat and couscous. It comes in plain, tomatoed, almonded, pistachioed, raisined, chicpeaed, eggplanted and chickened versions.
These dishes originated from the Ottoman, and particularly from the palace kitchen. The rice pilafs changed according to the rice species and were offered in the wedding ceremonies together with safflower dessert.
Pilaf is an indispensable food not only of the Ottomans, but also of the entire Turkish world.
The adept Ottoman women were brewing 27 different types of pilafs in their kitchens. The wedding, betrothal and noodle pilafs are but a few that jump into the mind just to begin.
The Ottoman tables bore an incredible wealth in hot and cold vegetable dishes. Beans to the list, followed by eggplants with its more than 40 varieties. Tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, okra, squash, marshmallow, artichoke, carrot, spinach, cauliflower, celery, asparagus, purslane, artichoke, leek... There probably many others that I forgot.
Among the dried vegetables were the broad beans, okras, speckled and white beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas.
Those cooked with meats of these vegetables used to come to the table first while their brethren with olive oil awaited their turn in the fly-netted kitchen cupboards.
The pastas of the Ottoman cuisine, an unfathomable subject to study, may be divided into doughs, fritters and sweets. The first two are generally warm dishes, baked either in an oven or on a frying pan. Between the leaves of dough are spread ground meat, various cheeses or spinach. They were among the indispensable foods of Rhamadan tables. The dough leaves were used to be prepared in those day at homes with the help of thin wooden rollers. The trays of fritters were used to be sent to a local bakery if there was not an oven in the house.
The best of frying pan pastas was the so-called cigarette rolls, with a scraped cheddar fill. They were much appreciated, especially in the drinking tables.
The fritters with cheese, spinach, ground meat and milk were used even as the sole dish, but then always with a diluted yoghurt beverage.
The syruped fruits or cider, a wonderful beverage made at home from the juices of several fruits, were frequently encountered in the Rhamadan tables to accompany the pastas.
AND OTTOMAN DESSERTS
The Ottoman had three different types of sweets: pastries, milked custards and fruit desserts plus the baklava.
Basic ingredients of the latter were the wafer-thin leaves of dough, butter, sugar and honey together with cream and any of the crushed hazelnuts, walnuts or pistachios.
All baklava sorts are oven-baked. Women from the Black Sea region offer baklava instead of candies to you during your holiday greeting visit and whisper to you while pushing the baklava platter toward you that she had prepared it from sixty leaves of dough. Imagine that this figure may go up to as high seventy or eighty.
The milky sweets are plain milk custard, oven-baked milk custard, milk custard with rice, milk custard with rice flour, custard with chicken and attared rice-flour dish.
Milk custard with rice flour preceded the dessert procession in the special dinner tables as its oven-baked version and custard with chicken were made for a long time by confectionaries. The attared rice-flour dish is the chief dessert during Rhamadan. Its ingredients came from local shops and the housewives cooked it in milk and served it with cream atop. It’s debatable to say know how many people are still able to prepare it today.
Yet the gourmets are still unable to resist to milk custard with rice flour. It was the most favoured dessert of late Vehbi Koç and my father, two of the last true Ottomans. Unfortunately, all these dishes gradually go into oblivion since our tables have begun to reflect the menus of foreign restaurants and the famous meatbread of Konya converted itself into Italy’s pizza.
The most renowned dessert of the Ottoman tables was, however, the aşure, that we may literally render into decachyle. It was a ceremonial dessert, generally prepared between the tenth and twentieth days of Muharrem, the first month of the lunar year. It is also claimed that this time bracket has to do with the Kerbela incident.
Rumour has it that the last meal concocted in the Noah’s Ark at the end of the flood contained forty different ingredients that were the last remnants of the supplies. The same forty ingredients are known to be put into the huge saucepans of the Ottoman houses while verses from Koran were chanted.
A part of the end-product was then distributed to neighbours.
There are other histories regarding this brew. The tenth day of Muharrem is said to be the day when Adam and Eve had met and the first aşure was cooked to commemorate this day.
There are those that deny it and say that it was a dessert designed to express the gratitude of Adam and Eve to God that had later forgiven them after their dispatch to the Earth because of Adam’s unpermitted presentation of the famous apple to Eve,
We like, however, this delicious but difficult-to-make dish as the dessert par excellence rather than an amnestic. Concoction. May God benedict he who engineered the recipe.
The basic ingredients of halvas are flour or semolina, fat, sugar, milk and cream.
The Ottoman house used to prepare one of the halva varieties and distribute it to relatives, acquaintances and neighbours when a birth or death occurred in the house, a male went off for military duty, someone returned from pilgrimage, a child began to go to school, upon graduation, during the udolithanies, in the yoghurt festivities (when lambs are weaned) and during saffron celebrations (when the first saffron appears in springtime.)
Though the Rhamadan, called the as the king of all other months among the Turks, has many traditions of its own, we will take up here solely those that pertain to the tables.
Two types of tables were laid during Rhamadan: for breaking the fasting and for starting it.
The first is laid at the sunset, which was announced by an artillery piece fired from a predominant hill in the city. The believers then sat around the table according to the family hierarchy and terminate their fasting, usually first with a couple sips of water followed by an olive or a dried date.
This ritual was performed in two parts, in the first of which merely the fasting is ended. It is designed deliberately for avoiding a greedy attack on the food after a long day of hunger. Olives, minute quantities of jams and small pieces of cheeses are taken from undersized platters and eaten with a little bit of fresh-baked pitta.
The foods are then immediately removed from the table since it’s the time of evening prayers that started with the muezzin’s call from the minaret. Then everybody returned to the table that was laid anew to partake the actual meal. Following the broth, the pastrami with eggs, a dish not normally figuring during the other days, was served. The pastrami was cooked with the addition of onions.
I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether the pastrami, a routine meal in the imperial table during Rhamadan, was served regularly at homes.
The following meals started with meat dishes and ended with the rice flour dessert.
The second Rhamadan meal was the one with which the fasting started. It was allowed until such time “a white thread could be differentiated from a black one” in the morning. There were no guests for this meal and only the family members were the persons around this particular table. The courses were designed in such a manner that thirst would not be created during the day. Pilafs, macaronis and fritters together with a fruit sherbet.
Some families had a preferred special course in addition to the normal menus for such occasions as the advent of springtime, birth or death in the family, wedding and circumcisions. The most important of such courses and desserts was always the halva.
It was always prepared in the Ottoman houses also when somebody from the family went away from the house or returned to it, when a family member regained his or her health after an important illness or after any major event of common interest to the family.
Why always halva? I don’t know; but it always played the majordomo in those ceremonial events.
Sir Edward Burton who was the first British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire had reported in his letter to the Queen that he had counted around one hundred different courses in the dinner organised for commemorating his arrival, that the rose leave sherbet had an unprecedentedly delicious taste and that his hands were washed at the end of the dinner by servants in a fragrant water with aloe and sandalwood leaves, flower extracts and must.
The Sultan used to send to the janissaries is huge silver trays as one tray for each ten. Each tray was carried by two janissaries from the palace to the garrison and the next day the trays together with their velvet covers were returned to the palace.
If the janissaries were satisfied with the treatment given to them, they used to accept and eat the baklavas. Otherwise, the trays were returned untouched.
So was the life in those days.