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On Drinking and Eating in the Daily Life


During the Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire with a life span of nearly seven centuries and a territory spread over a huge area is a State for which generalisations are difficult. Thus, when mention is made of eating and drinking in the Ottoman daily life, the reader might be tempted to ask “where in the Empire” or “when”? In fact, as a disciple of history, I know that generalisations are difficult or, more precisely, inappropriate. Yet, I find it inevitable on the other hand since the topic covers a vast time and space element.

Everything is under the influence of time and space. To treat the first days of the Empire with the time that witnessed its withering away would be irrational beyond the impossible. The time always exerts its influence and the Ottoman Empire is no exception to this rule. There is a huge abyss between the simplicity of its enate days and the magnificence of its apogee. The Turkish influence in its early years had gradually ceded to a broader Western imprint. This is not something to be surprised at, since the Ottoman State that was in the beginning merely a spearheading local tribe and, as such its contacts were limited to the Byzance Empire, became subsequently exposed to a whole array of European States for almost six hundred years. It is quite natural that there occurred an interaction of cultures between the two sides.

The same may also be said for the space. The Ottoman Empire ruled over a geographical area encompassing the Eastern and Central Europe, Balkans, Anatolia, Middle East and Northern Africa and, as such, controlled an area comparable only with the Roman Empire. Untold numbers of different local cultures, having traditions of their own stemming from their own past, lived in this area. The history tells us that the Ottomans had never attempted to replace these cultures by another and predominant one. One may at best mention a certain influence of the traditions of courtesy of the capital city. And we know that this influence did not harshly affect the local cultures.

Is it, despite all this, possible to talk about a sui generis Ottoman eating and drinking culture? It appears to me that such a generalisation is well within the realm of the possible if we take Istanbul as the focal point and exclude the self-styled xenophile circles of our days. It should be recalled that Istanbul was added to the realm at a time when the Ottoman Empire had accelerated the processus of becoming a universal empire. There are significant differences between the Ottoman traditions prior and subsequent to Istanbul’s conquest. The new traditions, evolving from the coexistence of the old and new, had properly settled itself and managed to maintain its original outlines outside of some eoperophile circles, ridiculed by many Ottoman intellectuals themselves. It cannot be denied that the eating and drinking habits are the aspects most difficult to become altered and that a long time is needed to assimilate the innovations. The culinary culture does not easily change its original content. This is as valid for the Ottomans as all other past and present cultures.

Is shall mention in this paper some particulars, likely to be interesting for the reader, regarding the eating and drinking habits in daily life during the establishment and rise of the Ottoman Empire. I shall not deny that I am of the opinion that both periods are important.

The enate years are interesting as they witnessed the pains of a radical change while the rise deserves a closer examination how a universal empire had developed a culinary concept in a candid manner devoid of complexes, taking into account the historical past and geographical characteristics of the region on which it ruled and without dissociating itself from its original roots. For those who wonder about the rest of the story would like to recommend the book that I wrote for Şekerbank on the occasion of the Ottoman Empire’s 700th anniversary.

Let’s elucidate one more point here. The daily life as I understand covers the manner in which the people of all classes, including the emperors, lived in Istanbul. The holidays, official ceremonies and other similar events were excluded from this scope and concentrated my studies on Istanbul for the reasons that I quoted above.

The Ottoman Empire acquired a certain eating and drinking maturity with the conquest of Istanbul. Mohamed the Conqueror had changed the State’s basic form from a tribe into a universal empire as revealed by his attitude after the conquest. We may conclude from here that the culinary habits of the Ottomans had then begun to become universal, with the adoption and assimilation of Byzance customs first.

Although some leading historians like Professor Dr. Süheyl Ünver persistently claim the contrary, the absence of a Byzantine culinary influence on the Turk immigrating into Anatolia does not seem to be a readily acceptable thesis. Considering that the Turkish emigration had started in the early tenth century and that the Turko-byzantine relations continued until 1453 when Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman armies, it would be preposterous to imagine that the contacts that lasted nearly four hundred years did not affect the Turkish kitchen. It should be borne in mind that there already was a widespread Byzance influence in the peninsula and that the relations between the two nations were in a well-advanced state, including even the intermarriages. One should add here that the Turks hat met in their new homesteads a whole new array of foods and eating habits. The best approach for a sound decision should be here to examine the Byzantine traditions and compare them with the Ottoman customs. One of the best sources regarding Byzance within the scope of our subject is the “Daily Life in Byzance: Konstantinopolis as the Gem of Byzance” of Tamara Talbot Rice, a contemporary Byzance historian. Rice says in her book that their eating habits were closer to our current practice than to that of the Mediaeval Europe. Let’s listen to the rest from her: “Three meals, consisting of breakfast, lunch and dinner, were considered normal. Much care was exercised to comply with the lent requirements, but three courses were the rule for both the lunch and dinner on the tables of well-to-do citizens. First was served an bors d’oeuvre platter, followed by a fish dish accompanied by a sauce called gakos, already quite well known in the pre-Christian period. A grilled meat was normally the second course, and a dessert was taken to top them off.”

This menu is closer to the contemporary customs than to the pompous mediaeval aristocratic tables that sometimes offered nearly a hundred dishes. In addition to this, the service of an hors d’oeuvre is quite interesting in that there is a striking similarity with a custom that we persistently and knowingly maintain.

Let’s go now a little bit into the details of the meals. After having said that “The courses were so many in number, selection depended solely on personal preferences”, Rice gives some examples. One of them has to do with Konstantinos VII, who was “...... known to be fond of delicious sauces, while Zoe loved small olives, bleached (which probably means boiled for a short time) laurel leaves and Indian herbs, particularly if they were hot dried.”

The first interesting point in what was said on the Emperor’s eating habits was his fondness for sauces with the fresh (and therefore quite expensive) spices, obviously shared with the West Roman Empire.

The explanations given in the subsequent pages of this history deal with the eating habits that carry more popular eating habits bearing local tinges: “A housewife could, just like her sisters in the modern Greece, make her selection from among a long list of games, fowls and meats. Pork legs were much appreciated. Fowl was both boiled and grilled. Large quantities of fish and ducks were consumed.”

Making a short a propos here, we should indicate that the part that has to do with the pork did not much influence the Turkish side nor may the duck be said to have made a thorough penetration into our kitchen. Fish is, however, a different story and had a rather large place in the Ottoman palace kitchen in the reign of Mohamed the Conqueror.

The authoress then begins to describe the courses normally appearing on a household table and tops the list with the broths of which she seems to have been much influenced. We should indicate at this juncture, however, that the courses described there include as much the broths in the current sense of the word as the meals that we call marmite foods. She says: “There was a general preference for the broths which were quite elaborated and of which the preparation took a long time. There were various salads beside the tripe and pigeon.”

These explanations by Rice are important in that they give us clues regarding the first encounter of Turks with the salads. It is not surprising to see that the olive oil had a predominant place in the Byzantine culinary practices. Similarly, we should not be awed at the fact that we have inherited the olive oil and dishes cooked in olive oil.

The caseophilia is a common trait of both the Turks and Byzantines whereas a Byzance table may not be imagined without fruits. The most preferred fruits were apples, melons, watermelons, figs, dates and grapes. The Pistachios are added to this list as a dried fruit sort. One wonders whether the practice of partaking of fruits, called “coolants”, on Istanbul tables has something to do with this Byzantine habit. As the time is ripe for it, we may talk a little about the eating and drinking culture beyond the meals in the narrower sense. Rice says that the efforts spent by the Byzantines to offer the meals with an attractive appearance was well beyond the habitual for that time and mentions that this may be compared with the refined endeavours of our days. Let’s read the rest from her: “Laying of the table was the subject of great care in Byzance. At a time when such zeal was unheard of in Europe, clean and finely-embroidered cloths were laid on the table. Persons were expected to remove their street shoes when they entered the dining room.”

The determination of what we have directly inherited from the Byzance kitchen is of course a matter of an in-depth study. Even a researcher such as Professor. Dr. Süheyl Ünver who claims that we dot not have a large culinary heritage from Byzance admit that the “priest’s stew”, “filled mussels”, shrimps and fish preserves such as sardines my well have penetrated into the Turkish kitchen as a result of the coexistence of two different ethnic entities.

Many experts are unanimous in stating that significant changes had occurred in the culinary habits of the Turks after their spearheading into Anatolia. In fact, such changes should be deemed quite normal in a new land where the climatic and terrestrial conditions are different from the region abandoned. It should be recalled that the Anatolia is dissimilar to the Central Asia as regard the flora. Some sources state that only a few vegetables were consumed in the latter. And the new land was quite rich in this respect, not to mention the fact that the new newcomers were hailed by an incredible number of fish species and water products. These factors alone may be considered as sufficient grounds for a thoroughgoing change in the kitchen of a given nation. In the light of this, statements of several of our researches who claim that the “... Turks already had a kitchen in the fifteenth century that they had brought along from Central Asia to Malazgirt and introduced to the whole of Anatolia at a time when they were attempting to retailor and ameliorate it by adding new components and ingredients found along their paths” should be taken as a somewhat worried opposition and a quest for an equilibrium.

Arrival of the Turks into Anatolia and adoption of the Islam by them are almost epichronic. It could be claimed as a logical corollary of this that a synthesis had evolved from the compilation of Islamic and Turkish traditions. Somewhat elaborate detail were given above on the Turkic element of this synthesis. As for the best information of Islam’s contribution to this phenomenon, references should be made to the works of Islamic thinkers and physicians, among which stands out Muhiddin Arabi, author of “Al Tadbirat-ul Ilahiyyah: Islah-ul Memleket-ul Insaniyyah” (The Divine Measures: Improvement of Lands of Humans), of which some passages of the chapter titled “Elegl-u vesh Shurb” (On Eating and Drinking) read as follows:

“Eat only much as you need and never overfill yourself: Do not drink muck water. Eat carefully and sparingly. Eat only just as much as would permit you to sustain you in your work and avoid wasting your time in ingestion. Eat carefully in small-sized bites.

Chew your bites well and swallow them only after this. Always start with a prayer. Don’t reach for another before chewing your last bite well and swallowing it. Make it a habit to respect the rights of your companions in the even if you are alone so that mispractices will not become habits that will place you in a predicament before God Almighty and All-forgiving. Don’t keep on looking at the face of the person whom you may have incited to share your food, so that he will not be embarrassed and repent for having accepted food from you. To do so is equivalent to a full day’s prayers. Do not compliment the persons who say that you eat too little, since this may waylay you into excesses. Let them say as much as they will that you eat too little.

When you are ready for your meal, be second only to your peer and never precede him in any conversation and continue to do so until the table is removed. Do not eat at home before going to attend a meal invitation in order to receive praises and compliments to the effect that you eat so little and to be so flattered. Do not heed to those who say so and never change your routine habits of eating save for what the rules of politeness dictate. Such statement are ingrained in the minds of dissenters in order to gee those from the right course.”

Professor Ünver says that Muhiddin Arabi’s advices “... show us that this part added perforce at the end of the section dealing with the Turkish meals is indicative of the transformation undergone by the Turkish customs under the Islamic influence.” To eat moderately, to avoid overfilling one’s self, not to swallow before chewing well, to refrain from hurrying during the meal, to always take food from the part right in front, to avoid looking into the faces and hands of others while eating, never to start eating first, to be grateful to those who offer a meal, to refrain from overeating by heeding to those who say that one eats so little, and always to thank God that provides these foods are something are attitudes that fit well today’s Turkish society. We should state here however that similar advices were given in the European savoir vivre books of hat time. In fact, the need to take the food always from the part right in front of the eater, to avoid haste, to refrain from looking at the faces and hands of the others are the requirements arising from eating from the same pot. Everyone thus accepted his or her own share and refrained from swiping the share of others. Since the details were designed on the basis of tenet of “respecting the others first”, it would be incorrect to claim that these rules were specific to us alone. Though there is an Islamic tinge in the matter, most of the rules stem from that time’s requirements, aptly described as the Zeitgeist by the Germans.

If we delve into some details at this point, the first point of interest becomes the simplicity of the meals and tables in the Turkish States founded in Anatolia after the arrival of Turks and their subjacent principalities and autonomous areas ad deducted by Professor Ünver from the foundation deeds and caravanserai expenditure ledgers. Of course, these establishments were philanthropic organisations where luxury was carefully avoided, and their culinary practices might well fall short of reflecting the kitchen traditions of that time.

Yet, a few examples could be appropriate at this stage. Though the details of the meals served are missing, even the names alone give us valuable clues. The ledgers also indicate the amounts of ingredients used. They are, however, immaterial for our purposes and were therefore disregarded here. All foundation deeds require that there will always be a sort of stew accompanied by bread and sometimes by a broth. In many cases, a rice or parched wheat pilaf was added to the list and, where the means were adequate, a dessert completed it.

After having broadly described the menu, let’s quote the list of meals served at the almshouses and public kitchens: Rice or parched wheat pilaf, meat, spinach, turnips, vegetables, a flour halva and a pasta dessert with honey.

Another point of interest to be considered important from the viewpoint of culinary history is meal to be served to late comers: Honey, walnut, cheese and pitta.

It has been reported that even the palace tables in the enate days of the Ottoman Empire reflected this simplicity atmosphere. An excerpt made by Adnan Giz from Ahmet Refik’s book titled “Turks Before the Parapets” is rather striking. Mention is made there of a dinner held at the Palace of Murad II on the occasion of the Milanese Ambassador. In other it should have been an official affair for displaying the State’s prestige and the Emperor and his entourage might not be imagined to have missed this point. Look, however, how simple were the courses and beverages:

“... There were about one hundred pots on the table, containing rice and some mutton. They were placed shortly before the Sultan had arrived.

The Milanese Ambassador was summoned when the Sultan sat on the throne. The gifts were first placed beside the pots and than raised above the servants to enable the Sultan to see them all.

... A silk towel and a likewise silk spread were placed before Sultan Murat. There was a large red hide on the floor. The custom here was to use a hide instead of a table. Then were brought two gilded plates. The servants served the meat into the plates on the basis of one plate for each four persons from tin-plated pots. There was mutton and some rice in the pots. Bread and water was, however, missing. I noticed an elevated shelf at one side of the hall, containing a large silver demijohn below and a smaller cup above. Some of the guests were getting up from time to time and having a drink which couldn’t discover whether it was water or wine.”

I want to draw the attentions on one particular point before beginning to interpret the above. What our observer refers to as rice was in all likelihood a pilaf since there are no records stating that the Turks ate boiled rice like the Chinese people. Another interesting conclusion of the observation was that the preferred meat was mutton, which is a typical characteristic of the Turkish-Ottoman kitchen. The mutton and, depending on the reason, the lamb maintained the position of being the most preferred meat sort in the Turkish kitchen. The veal and beef were not consumed much until very recently –I am talking about the last fifty years or so- and still trailed the list even after the proclamation of the Republic. The situation has begun to reverse itself only in the last few decades.

A single main course point at a simplicity not seen anywhere in the world and probably not to be seen in the foreseeable future. The existence of only one side course, the pilaf, together with the meal is another confirmation of the desire for remaining modest. We cannot say with any degree of certainty whether the observer was negligent or deemed it not worth mentioning at least one entrée and a dessert or a fruit at the end of the meal. Our observer further indicates that a red hide –The rumour has it that it is a tanned horsehide- was spread on the floor. Only the Sultan was given a silk spread and towel. The absence of bread on the table is another point of interest since it is a food having an important place among the Turkish trepecopeia. The non-existence of something to drink is, however, quite normal because a beverage, and even water, was not offered in such meals. Yet, the absence of at least a sherbet is striking, together with the availability of a liquid partaken from time to time by the guests. The answer of the query of whether it was water or an alcoholic beverage is quite clear to us.

Service of the meals on the basis of one platter for each four persons was a custom observed among the Ottomans as well as in the whole of Europe at that Time. According to this service concept, two or most generally four persons were given one platter, and solely the Emperor and his guest of honour had a service of their own. The food was taken from the platter in the middle, using a spoon or a knife and placed on a slice of pitta or bread and carried to the mouth. The chic circles of Europe did not eat these slices and leave them to the servants or given to the dogs waiting patiently around.

The existence of music befitting an emperor’s official dinner, however, against this somewhat lean food and beverage array of Murat II’s table was somewhat allaying the disappointment of the invitees. Our observer describes this with these words: “There was a team of musicians seated next to the buffet. As soon as the Sultan left his private apartment, the musicians having large-bellied and long-stemmed string instruments began to play and chant songs depicting the heroic feats of late emperors and many of those present in the hall vociferously accompanied them. This looked a bit peculiar to me at first. The music continued until the start of the dinner.”

Music accompaniment to a dinner is truly an aristocratic practice. But we may inverse the meaning conveyed with the sentence of “The music continued until the start of the dinner” as “The music stopped when dinner began”. While a meal is a pleasurable event of that time’s Europe -and even today’s Western World-, the Turks gave it an aura of something to be performed with a serious attitude and even with the requirements of an important function. I shall revert to this later when we examine the Soliman the Magnificent’s period.

The most noteworthy information on the meals of Mohamed the Conqueror’s reign is found in the purchase records kept by the palace majordomos who studiously entered on the ledgers all raw materials purchased on a day-to-day basis. Let’s look as an example to the February purchase entries in 1473. According to the transcription of Professor Ünver, they were (as converted into metric values by translator) 320 kg of honey, 544 chicken, 504 kg of rice, 61 geese, 3,5 kg of saffron, 116 oysters, 87 jumbo shrimps, 400 fish, 60 gr of musk, 12,4 kg of pepper, 15 litres of olive oil, 32 kg of pither, 129 kg of Wallachian salt, 16 kg of starch, 51 bottles of treacle, 616 sheep’s heads and legs, 180 tripes and 649 eggs.

If we examine this list by comparing it with today’s culinary habits, we may say that the honey would not be deemed excessive since it was a substitute for sugar. The chicken meat seems to have been used quite a bit and the rice is the main ingredient of the pilafs while the goose appears to be consumed a lot more than we do today. Saffron was a sign of wealth in the kitchen of those days. It almost completely disappeared from today’s recipes. Fish, shrimps and mussels already were cherished foods on the imperial tables whereas we never use the musk as a sweetener nowadays. The pepper (presumably black pepper) is a much sought-after spice as it is today. The appearance of olive oil on the purchase lists suggests that it had gradually begun to replace the butter, the traditional cooking fat of the Turkish kitchen. Similarly, he pither is a material that went iÎnto complete oblivion in our days. The origin of the salt seems to be interesting. Starch is normally used in the preparation of many foods while the rather generous consumption of treacle graciously ceded its place to the more modern beverages. There was a high consumption of innards such as tripes and sheep legs together with the eggs.

The list did not obviously cover the entire foods since there probably was several raw materials in the stocks, such as the butter. On the other hand, the relatively high amounts of consumption should not surprise us as they covered after all a full month’s cookery. When the list is examined in this light, it might be pretended that the palace was not in the luxury side of the scale.

Two daily meals were served during the Conqueror’s time. This habit does not seem to have changed from Istanbul’s conquest until the beginning of twentieth century. The fist meal, combining the breakfast and lunch into a sort of brunch, was quite different from its brethren of today and intended to keep one going until the dinner, normally taken after the vespers.

According to what we know, there was as a rule a broth in the brunch although nibbles were undoubtedly being taken in between. Professor Ünver says that sherbet was used to be offered to the gusts visiting outside of the meal times. Similarly, the untimely passers-by were offered honey and bread in the almshouses.

Let’s also mention the places where collective meals were served to groups while talking about the almshouses. Meals were being served at the educational institutions covering also the religious schools and complexes. We know from the available records the menus offered in the Mohamed the Conqueror’s complex: rice soup with parsley, wheat cooked with mutton, mutton stew, squash cooked in sour grape juice, spinach, pilaf, saffroned rice custard were among the foods. Similarly, liberal quantities of onions, chickpeas, yoghurt and cinnamon were on the shopping lists. A routine menu consisted generally of pilaf, mutton stew and bread. We know that also pickles, saffroned rice custard, pumpkin jam made with honey, cinnamon and cloves were added to the menu whenever dignitaries visited the facility.

Less is known, however, of the Sultan’s personal preferences since the emperor’s private kitchen ledgers contain rather scanty information. According to what Professor Ünver unearthed from them, fried chicken, poultice, pitta with spinach, eggs, cheesed pitta, minestrone, rice with vegetables, broth, fritters, honey, milk custard, saffroned rice custard, baklava, halva and milked pastries were served to the Emperor with such beverages as treacle, pomegranate juice, sherbet, minted grape sherbet and diluted yoghurt. Among the dried and fresh fruits of royal choice were pears, pomegranates and almonds an interesting note on what was eaten and drunk during the military campaigns was also found in the records: Mohamed the Conqueror stayed about a week in Afyon during the expedition against Persian Shah Hasan in 1473 and was served broth with sour grape juice, vegetables, salad, sheep’s head and legs, macaroni with cheese, fritter, bread, apricots, plums, apples, pears and grapes.

Meals were also cooked at the palace for the servants, but varieties were not extensive. The natural guests were served a single course, though quantity was abundant to keep them going until the next meal. Cabbage soup, rice with vegetables, wild spinach with yoghurt, sheep’s heads and legs, poultice with eggs, yoghurt dessert with treacle and baklava were on the menus together with diluted yoghurt or sherbet.

The Soliman the Magnificent’s reign was the period when the Ottoman Empire had reached its apogee as to the extent of the territory that it controlled as well as to the wealth and welfare. It had become a terrific might and a true world empire.

The best and most realistic knowledge on the culinary habits of that time is found in the memoirs of a Spanish prisoner of war. Though narrated by a foreigner, the information is by no means biased and unilateral. On the contrary, as had later been a fashion in the West, the author lays bare the ambiguities of the Western World while describing Turkey and Turks and makes a sort of self-criticism. As he was known to be physician an marked a certain success in this field, had a position of prestige among his masters. Finally, this narrator whose name we do not know had lived in Istanbul and Ottoman Empire long enough to be intimately familiar with the Turks.

First, he worked in the Construction of Grand Admiral Sinan Pasha. He describes the meals that were served to them as “okras and lentils cooked in huge pots” and adds that “a spoonful did not, however, always bag an okra or some lentils”. It appears from what he reported that okra and lentils were among the foods preferred by the poorer strata of the population since they were nutritive and kept one going a long time. The scarcity of okra and lentils in the brew suggests a somewhat low quality.

The memoirs are interesting enough since it depicts the Turkish preference of good and afresh drinking water. He says: “Thank God, the water that we drank was fresh and sweet” and adds that we drank was fresh and sweet” and adds that it was piped from a nearby reservoir constructed for religious philanthropic purposes by orders of İbrahim Pasha.

Our narrator, the Spanish prisoner who uses the pseudonym of Pedro and already renowned as a physician, was once called to the manor of Sinan Pasha to treat his illness. In describing what had happened, he wrote the following: “To prove what I had said about the ancient physicians, I made two servants read passages from the book that I had brought alone. One of these servants was Pasha’s chef, a learned and jovial German who knew Latin and the other was a Venetian renegade.” A German chef who was fluent also in Latin in Grand Admiral Sinan Pasha’s manor! Isn’t it interesting?

We find another detail in the memoirs’ section that partly described the culinary habits of that time, though it had essentially to do with a diet food.

According to the narration, Sinan Pasha had fallen ill once again and Pedro was invited to replace his butler who was shifted to another job as he was found incapable to properly care for the Pasha. Pedro then began to go down to the kitchen every morning, order the Pasha’s food, determined his meal times, acted as his majordomo and waited on him. When the food was served, he personally cut it into bites and fed him. He ate the rest of the food.

Considering that the rest of the food went to Spanish prisoner, there is no doubt that a certain care was exercised to make sure that it was tasty, though attention was duly paid to diet aspect of the matter. Of course, it’s not only Pedro’s palate that’s valid here and the Turkish pasha’s taste was also taken into account. Pedro described in the following passages the manner in which this synthesis was achieved: “When I went down to the kitchen one morning, I learned that the physicians had ordered the chef to boil half a chicken in half a pot of water and add salt only after the process was done. I immediately rebuked them with all the cusswords that I could bring together and ordered four large pots to be put on the fire; put two chickens into each pot, added chickpeas, parsleys and celeries into one, onions and lentils into the second and vegetables into the others. I ordered the first pot to be boiled without addition of salt and had two chicken fried for those who prefer the chicken in its fried version.”

The rest is also interesting. The lines that follow describe the difference in quality and quantity of the foods ingested by the élite classes and the laymen and show how pasha conceives this social aspect of the meal.

Pedro says: “The jewish physicians who saw that asked me what I would do with so much food. I retorted to them by indicating them they had apparently not treated any dignitaries before, that they should watch me closely and change their practices, that what they did at their own homes was not befitting for a man like Pasha, that the rest of the food would go to the servants. I learned that my prestige before the Pasha had soared when he learned what I had said.”

There is the narration, in the first part of the book, of a travel to a region now in the territory of Greece, then to Tassos and Limnos. The Spanish prisoner is on the escape trek and describes the events as follows:

“We did not dare to go too far inland, fearing that the ship might set sail without waiting for us. Noting that the weather did not improve, shipowner and his entourage decided to visit a village to have something to drink and to have a good time. We followed them to find something to eat. There was a wedding party in the village. I told them that we wanted some bread. Pitying us, they gave us some boiled broad beans and raisins since it was a lent day.”

This simple hospitality being obviously not sufficient, some liquor was also offered: “Seeing that we could not tear the loaf of bread apart since our hands had almost frozen, they brought in a brazier and our host gave me a shot of raki, which warmed me up and helped me to pull myself together.”

The book was written in form of a trilogue. One of the characters, a man named Mata, asks Pedro: “Is raki drunk during the meal?” Pedro replies: “Around the all-male tables, Turks and Greeks take two or three shots of raki before the meal just like we take some white wine”. Asks then Juan, the other speaker: “Don’t their mouths burn?”, to which Pedro replies: “No, they’re used to it.” Asked by Mata if the Greeks drinks a lot, Pedro replies: “As much as Germans, even more” and adds: “The difference is that the Germans drink once in a while and from a glass while the Greeks eat little and take a sip after each bite”. Nothing could describe better, I believe, the raki table and drinking habits there.

The second part of the book was written like the observations of a modern anthropologist. It has several well-conceived parts, of which one deals with the meals.

The Spanish prisoner begins this part by saying that there is a lot to describe regarding the foods and meals. The first thing his interlocutors ask him whether the meals in the palace of the Emperor whom he calls the Grand Lord, were inshrined the same pompousness as prevailed in the Spanish royal palace. There is a literary cul-de-sac here. If my claim that the book was written to criticise the Spanish society is correct, the question may be deemed to have been asked for slighting the Spanish palace customs. Pedro picks up the clue and replies it with a real, sincere and outright straightforwardness since he has a thorough knowledge on the Ottoman practice. And he was not late in pouring out his acquis and, acting thoroughly honest, gives examples from the manor of Grand Admiral Sinan Pasha, once also the Grand Vizier’s chief confidant, in lieu of the Emperor’s palace:

“Let me tell you how Sinan Pasha ate. You may deduct from this how the élites were fed and, from another example, you will learn the phagotic practices of the society’s lower strata.”

Before going immediately into the meals here, Pedro writes these lines that provide valuable clues on the mensal habits: “They customarily sit and eat on the floor. They lay on the floor, in order to keep the carpet clean, a thick and coloured hide as a tablecloth. The napkin is a rectangular cloth large enough to be pulled on the crossed legs, just like in the ecclestiastical communions. Fruits, knives, salt shakers and plates were never put even on a suzerain’s table.”

Absence of fruits on he table seems to have goaded Pedro’s friends to ask him if they didn’t eat fruits. Pedro replied: “They eat a lot of it; but not during the meals”.

The absence of knives on the table is an interesting detail for the Western World there the meats were served to the table in large chunks and his reply to how they were partaken settles this issue: “They have a sort of bread that they call pitta. They divide it into three pieces and use them as plates. Everyone takes a part of the meat an puts it on his or her pitta.” We may find here a similarity with the Western custom mentioned above. It will be recalled that mention was made above that slices of bread slices were distributed on the table and that those taking meat from the central pot put it on their breads.

The absence of the salt dispenser on the table is, however, important in that it constitutes the ground for one of the author’s claims in favour of Turks: “Their chefs are so adept in their trades that they never fail to give the right taste to their meals.”

A nice detail in the book deals with the garments of servants acting as waiters. Apparently much influenced by them, Pedro describes them in a minute manner: “There were around forty servants in Sinan Pasha’s manor. They were chashnighirs, receiving a wage of one and a half rials Per day, whose duties consisted of bringing food to Pasha’s table. They were clad in a special way. Pasha gave them two sets of garments every year, one of silk and one of calico. Their headgears are reminiscent of tasseled janissary caps, with the difference that they are red in colour”. We learn from the subsequent explanations that the servants wore these decorated garments also when they accompanied the Pasha in the city. Another detail given is about the one-span-wide silver thread belt that they wore.

Also the simplicity of the casseroles were surprising for the Spaniards. To the question of whether they were made of silver, Pedro said: “It must be known First of all that their religion forbade them to use silver table wear”, and referring to Soliman the Magnificent, added that the tenets were the same for even the Grand Turk”.

Pedro’s interlocutors were taken aback at learning that an emperor did not have any silver tableware and they incredulously repeated the question. Pedro replied: “Yes, he has, and even of the very best quality. He also has huge silver chandeliers. But he didn’t have them produced. They are gifts coming from Venice, France, Hungary, Croatia and other places. He keeps them in the imperial treasury room and never uses them. Sinan Pasha also had several such silverware sets; but he didn’t use them either.” He gave the reason for this as the Turk’s belief that “...those eating and drinking from silverware will account for it in the purgatory”.

What kind of tableware they used then? Our Spanish observer replied this question laconically with “Copper” and gives the following details: “They hammer the copper better than the British pelterwork. Just like we produce beautiful shapes out of boxwood in a lathe, they come up with incredibly beautiful objects out of copper sheets. The copper containers which they can shape into any form that they want shine like silver when they stain them. They send them to restaining when the original shine wears out in time. It’s cheaper than silver and the look brand-new.”

For one reason or the other, the issue of glasses had draw the attention of Spaniards who asked Pedro what kind of glass was used by Sinan Pasha. Pedro replied: “The noblemen used mostly porcelain glasses because they believed that the poison cracks the true glass. He says that there was also a stained copper drinking cup that contained about one litre of liquid. Those finding the porcelain a bit beyond their means used the copper cups, which were also found in many well-to-do houses.”

Though known to the Ottomans, the glass does not seem to be widespread. Pedro said that the Ottomans had fine venetian glasses in their cupboards though they did not use them for fear that they might look like us and adds: “Why they should use the glass cups since they do not drink wine? The use the glass only in the jars to preserve such foods as jams and pickles.”

Let us talk now a little bit about the service. The book contains the following observations of our Spanish author: “The chashnigirs, or waiters, lined up two abreast, picked up from the kitchen the lidded casseroles, brought them to Pasha’s table. The headwaiter placed his casserole on the table, took than the one in the hands of his rowmate, placed it likewise on the table and did the same for the rest of the procession. The empty casseroles were picked up in the same order at the end of the meal.”

Who were present around such a table? The reply to this question is in flagrant contradiction with the modern societal practices since it is inconceivable for a Western of that time as well as of today. As the author easily guesses this astonishment, he provides this reply with a pleasant smile: “Anyone could have a place in the table of Sinan Pasha, the Grand Admiral of a World Empire and chief confidant of the Grand Vizier, provided that he was not one of his own slaves! There were those who even rose to the rank of a governor from among his slaves; but they could not share his table. As long as he was not one of his employees, even a kitchen helper was permitted to eat together with him!”

A similar information is also given elsewhere in the book where the author narrates his observations as follows: “There is no segregation among them with respect to the mensal customs. Any person who just up and enters his dining room after removing his shoes and joins the group by picking up a spoon. All he had to do was to thank God at the end of the meal!”

It is I who put the exclamation marks that do not exist in Pedro’s book, since such a situation is hardly understandable even for a Turk of our century. Pedro continued: “The majordomo and chef were entitled to eat the meals prepared for Pasha; but not together with him. He had twenty servants who were not slaves and their duty was to sit at the oars when Pasha was on a sea trip. Only the oarsmen from among his servants could eat together with him.”

To go back to the table, we had indicated above how the table was picked up at the end of the meal. According to what our author says, the remainder of the food was brought to he paymaster’s table for the butlers, waiters, eunuchs and others, a group of fifty persons among whom was also Pedro the author. The rest of the food, now diminished to one-half of its initial quantity, was then served to the manor’s tailors, cobbler, ironsmiths, silversmiths, weaponsmiths and others. Our author says that there was not much left to be eaten, especially as meat. On the other hand, casseroles of the majordomo and chef who ate alone was passed on to the rest of the servants.

Despite the fact that there was not much left, especially in terms of meat, did those down the line were not properly fed? The reply to this question is found in the notes of our Spanish prisoner: “You should bear in mind that the amount of food cooked was o such a quantity that there was something left even for the cats, dogs and even birds. The omission of this last group was deemed to be a major sin and the omen of ill fate.”

He also gave some minor details on the kitchenware. Replying the question about the casseroles, Pedro briefly described some of the utensils: “The marmites were large enough to cook for the entire manor population. They look like cauldrons; only they do not have handles and their mouths are narrower. They are manufactured in lathes from thick copper plates. There were in the kitchen also monoblock flat trays with edges slightly raised.”

As for the meals, we have abundant information by which we are able to follow the line of development of the Turkish kitchen from the past to our days while some of the data provided contain contradictions that may be attributed to the fact that the author lived in a somewhat restricted circle and region. For example, the statement that the innards were not much appreciated by the Turks does not seem to hold water. Remember here the kitchen ledgers of Mohamed the Conqueror. Furthermore, such an attitude is not easy to be believable for a society thoroughly experienced in the animal breeding if we consider that this tradition still prevails in today’s Turkey, and especially in Istanbul.

We will leave the word again to our Spanish observer: “They eat everyday a rice metal called pilaf, cooked in mutton stock and beef lard. It is grainy and does not have an aquous appearance. Sometimes they add small seedless Alexandria raisins to it. Instead of clove-scented sauce and honey that we use, they have stewed mutton accompanied by fresh or dried plum compote. The rice is used also for a yellow-coloured and curdled dessert with turmeric and a lot of honey, called zerde. The third rice meal is the chicken broth, cooked with chunks of chicken and pepper.” One thing is certain: They cook nothing without cow butter that goes into fried an stewed meats, lentils, chick peas. Even the bread is not eaten before it is dipped in the meal’s fat.”

The most delicious food in Sinan Pasha’s table was the lamb stew with dill, chick peas and onions. The spinach eaten quite frequently was also tasty. Likewise, the noodles and wheat, lentils into which lemon was squeezed, stuffed wine leaves with spices, filled eggplants and squashes and fritters with ground meat made with wafer-thin dough leaves were much favoured.

“You should never ask for gravy on your meals; they don’t use it.” More details information is given in the subsequent pages in addition to what had been said before. We understand from the book that the majority of the fruits were brought from other areas although they were produced also in the vicinity of Istanbul. Striking are the references on the large amounts of dried figs, raising, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts. The vast number of grape species are mentioned with a note of envy. The other fruits are quoted by our Spanish author as follows: “Sweet cherries are abundant. only use it in dried form for boiling them into a sherbet in the winter time. Sour cherries are rare also in Italy. They are raised only in Bologna where they call them marascas.

In any trek starting from Castilla until you reach Jerusalem, you cannot find striped apples or split prunes; but there are small fruits called ‘musk apples that are as succulent as our striped ones. Pears, apples and melons are abundant and cheaper than in our country.

When Sinan Pasha governed Istanbul as the secundo of the Grand Turk, a lot of fruits were brought to the manor as gift. Once, eight melons of the type served to the Emperor was brought from 8-days’ distance. I just can’t describe their taste. Even those about to begin rotting were superior to those we know. Their seeds looked like peeled almonds. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked the transporter where and how they were raised. He said that they were produced in Iraq along river of which I don’t remember the name. The farmers just rake up the sand a little bit until water appeared, put two or three seeds there and covered the hole again.”

The author says here that the Turks sometimes ate fried meats and kebabs, and adds that “what they generally took were those that I mention.”

On the other hand, there are some major feasts organised from time to time. In fact, in two feasts offered to Dragut, one of Sinan Pasha’s fleet admirals were offered “all kinds of fowls, a vast variety of pastas, kids, rabbits, lambs and God knows what else.”

Some of the foods not mentioned here are described in the other parts of the book. The most striking detail here is the near-complete absence games. The author says that that the games were not much favoured on Turkish tables without knowing its reason, which was nothing other than the Prophet’s aversion against hunting. He says, however, that only the Grand Turk could hunt around Istanbul. In all likelihood, the games should have been kept away from the tables in order to enable the Emperor to find enough animals to hunt. Pedro says that he suggested to Sinan Pasha to order a few partridges, whereupon messages were sent to the governors of nearby provinces. The result was an avalanche of partridges delivered to the manor. Yet, the author intimates that the Turks were not much fond of such exotisms and preferred such easily obtainable fowls as chicken and castrated rosters.

His interlocutors had asked Pedro what was the ‘caviar’ and he replied that it was a paste made from the brains and fats of some large fish caught in the Black Sea. There is apparently a confusion here in that it is true that the caviar is obtained from the sturgeons fished along the Black Sea, though its origin was erroneously shown as their brains and fat. Caviar is produced from the roe of sturgeon and sometimes the roe itself is called caviar. The author had probably mistook the soft roe for caviar or thought that a cheaper crushed product was actually the caviar. A point that lends credence to this belief lies in his following statement: “It goes well with drinks, like herrings and sardines. You can spread it between two slices of bread. It is one of the best foods when one is on a boat; it does not need fire since it is consumed cold. Since it has nothing to do with meat, it is edible even in the lent days”.

The possibility of his mistaking the roe for caviar and his statement that it looked like the arabic soap is clearly evident from this sentence: “If you pay one silver quarter, you can buy enough to suffice for the entire house”. If this were true for the real caviar, one might be attempted to say how easy the life was in those days! Another interesting observation narrated I the book is on the fish and other water products. To the question of “Why don’t they eat meat everyday when they have so much delicious fish and their religion does not forbid it? Pedro says: “Because they are hostile to the fish” and reports a superstition: “Since the Turks drink water instead of wine, they believe that the fish might return to life in their bodies.”

The author also tells us the infatuation of Turks for the yoghurt. Saying that they are not fond of fresh milk, he says that “They love its sour version which they call yoghurt. This substance is a little acrid for our taste; but they nevertheless appreciate it more than we appreciate the cream.” At another place of the book, Pedro says that “the cream is available also in the land of Turks, but they do not like it as much as yoghurt”. He adds that yoghurt is made the year around and explains how it is produced: “They thicken the milk with yeast. As yeast, they use yoghurt again. The starting yeast is obtained from the fig’s sap.” Mentioning the yoghurt thickened in a cloth bag, he says: “They pour the yoghurt into a bag and let it drain off its excess water. Whenever they want to have a beverage, they take a little of this heavy yoghurt and dilute it with some water.”

As to the beverages, our observer says that the Turks customarily don’t drink water during the meal and adds somewhat uncouthly that they “go to a faucet or a source of water and drink it like oxen” when the meal is over.

The author attributes the custom of avoiding water during the meal to the fact that the courses served are –contrary to the Western ones-somewhat more watery than those in his country.

He also quotes the custom of sherbet drinking. He says: “Several sorts of sherbet were available in Sinan Pasha’s manor, which was prepared by boiling fruits like cherries, apricots and plums with sugar or honey. Fresh brews were prepared everyday for fear that they might go sour if they were kept for extended periods of time. The Turks never let their visitors go before serving them sherbet. The sherbet peddlers used to drop in the coffeehouses and pubs. Their wares were not expensive”.

Wine existed in the Ottoman Empire. Our Spanish observer noted that Moslems were not fond of the wine though the janissaries drank it from time to time according to our Spanish observer. He says, however, that there is no harm done by their aversion against wine since the Christians and Jews drank it. Regarding the Istanbul pubs, he gives the following information: “There are very good pubs where the prices are reasonable. When you enter into one, they ask you first if you want white or red wine. If you expressed your preference for white, you will be asked this time if you want Candia or Gallipoli. No matter which you select, you will not be spared the third question: How old?” Upon hearing all this, one o his interlocutors was flabbergasted and said that that much is not available even at our royal palace.

Then come the details of the wines: “Four-year-old Muscat and its superior mate Malvasy is sold for four Asperos a gallon. A younger product, one ore two-year-old one commands a price of three Asperos. Their quality is not inferior to a San Martino.

The best red wine is the one called ‘topiko’ by Greeks. Topiko means ‘local’. It is a dry and light-bodied wine and sells for 2 Asperos a gallon. Next come the darker ones from Lesbos and Limnos for a gallon of which you pay 1,5 Asperos. Wines come also from Marmara and Euboia Islands and Trabzon. You have to pay 7 Maravedos for a gallon of them.”

To those who were curious about why the Turks did not drink wine, the author replies: “A have heard from several Turkish theologists that Mohamed saw one day when he was on the way to the mosque that a group of youngsters playing merrily in a garden. Upon return from the mosque, however, that the same group was drunk this time and that there was a fight going on within the same group as if their life depended on it. For this reason, he forbade all Moslems to drink wine that converted the men into animals”.

He notes that three-day-old grape must was permitted though the wine was illicit since it begins to turn into wine from the fourth day on.

The Spanish prisoner who introduces himself as Pedro, physician of Sinan Pasha, Grand Admiral of Soliman the Magnificent, underlines a highly important detail in his book and narrates with the awe of someone accustomed to the Western customs Turkish mensal preferences and tastes with the following words: “Turks are not overly fond of eating. I believe that they eat to survive, and not because they derive a special pleasure from eating. When they grab a spoon, they assault their meals as if they are fleeing from a conflagration. They have the commendable habit of never talking during the meal and never wasting their time at the table. Those who eat their share just thank God and leave”.

A small duty perhaps; but this prayer which is now forgotten was worded as: “Thank ye God, may Ye give longevity to our Sultan”.