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Past, Present and Future of the Kitchen on our Daily Lives


- Kitchen, Palace Kitchen, Ramadan, Kitchen Utensils, Storeroom -

There are two things that the human being cannot give up without which he cannot survive: Eating and conversing. That’s why our ancestors had developed the dicton of “eat first and chat after”. Yes, eating and drinking are the spices of life. To eat for savouring the taste instead of filling up and having a sense of good taste is another feat. It’s then that the preparation and presentation of meals become art in itself. The place where the meals are prepared and preserves is the kitchen. The Arabic word matbah, meaning the place where the cooking takes place, was transliterated into Turkish as mutfak and, in some local dialects, mutfak. Yet the Turks had used such words as cookery, chowroom, chowroof and chowheath. The kitchen and heath are a binarity that may not be dissociated from each other. A house from the chimney of which rises smoke is a happy house and the worst blasphemy of those days was the uttered wish seeing one’s heath without a fire!.

A woman spends a considerable part if her life in the kitchen. Our life and the kitchen are intertwined. Of course, the woman’s life was considerably harder in the past days when the modern technology was yet to find its way into the kitchen where a cupboard with flea wire was the poor substitute of our refrigerator and there was a charcoal fire under a smoke duct instead of the modern kitchen range. Cooking was made also on braziers, tin cans lined with refractory bricks, stoves or kerosene burners. Just next to the fireplaces were such devices as ash rakes, tongs, bellows together with a three-legged iron impediment on which the pans were placed. The kitchen was generally outside of the house. There were storerooms adjacent to the kitchens in the residences of well-heeled citizens. Kitchens were the focal points bringing together the family members were the places by which the life was sustained.

There were two daily meals: a sort of brunch and the dinner that was taken when the sun set. The dishwashing that followed the meal, taken on a low table near the fireplace, was undertaken by the housewife with the water drawn from the well by a winding-wheel or pump. In the richer houses, this task was performed by young girls admitted into the family.

The cooking facilities where the palace meals were prepared were called the imperial kitchen. According to the information furnished by M. Zeki Akalın, the imperial kitchen with Twenty chimneys used to prepare meals enough to feed four to five thousand persons and this figure used to triple or quadruple of this level in the religious holidays or when provenders were distributed to the soldiers to whom broths, pilaf and saffroned custard were served. On the fifteenth day of Rhamadan, baklava was offered to all janissaries and their officers.

The imperial kitchen had its own rules of operation. As a dynasty kitchen, the raw materials were procured from the suppliers having an imperial appointment. They were under the strict control of the palace storekeeper. Butchers yoghurt and milk vendors, chicken breeders, candlemakers, burn bakeries, tinners and ice and snow sellers, Adjectives used for the kitchen staff suggest that the imperial kitchen operated as a sort of school: Terms like kitchen masters and trainees indicate the existence of master-student relations that prevailed in the ahitic corporative system within the context of which the imperial kitchen superintendent was the employee responsible for all culinary and ancillary activities. He and his helpers used to record on the ledgers all purchases on a day-to-day basis. These ledgers enable us to study the kitchen activities at as early times as the reign of Mohamed the Conqueror.

These ledgers, consisting of 375 volumes, indicate the purchases of all raw materials as well as kitchen utensils of which the use was also entered sometimes. The greatest amounts of purchases appear to be yoghurt for soups, milk, cheese, eggs, onions, garlic, soumac, mint, parsley, wild spinach, parched wheat, butter, olive oil, ginger and sesame oil for stews, black grapes, apricots and almonds for sherbets, cucumbers for pickles, veal tripes for broths, sesames, vinegar and honey for white bread, plus treacle, black pepper, chicken, gum, cinnamon, coconuts, rose attar and lentils for various dishes, most, water, mustard, cumin, lamb, fresh and dried fish, caviar, roe, peaches, pears, figs, grapes, watermelons.

The privy kitchen was where the emperor’s own meals were prepared. Chefs and helpers of this kitchen were handpicked for security purposes.

The scented section of the Privy Kitchen where desserts, jams, sherbets and sometimes soaps were prepared was called the Halva Room.

In the latter half of 16th Century, number of palace kitchen chefs had risen to 60 and servants had hit the 200 mark. In the middle of 17th century, the total complement was 1375. The name of kitchen superintendent at the manor kitchens was turned into the chef cook. In the larger kitchens were also the firekeepers and the dietarian as his helper. The latter was sometimes called potmealer or fine cook. One could also find specialised cooks for pilafs, fritters and desserts. The cook responsible for both the fritters and desserts was the doughman. All these craftsmen had their arrays of helpers, assistants, apprentices and novices. In his book titled “Hacıbeyzade Almshouse: Theoretical and Practical Cookery and Mensal Arts” (Ottoman Printing House, Istanbul 1916) offers a wealth of information on chefs, journeymen, apprentices, negress cooks and overseers as well as their functions.

The manors and homes of well-to-do citizens had gyneal and andreal sections. The kitchen was located in the former and meals were passed on to the latter through a rotating device that did not permit the persons at both sides of this contraption to see each other. Such arrangements did not exist in more modest houses.

An added liveliness permeated the kitchen in the sweets and sacrifice holidays when huge trayfuls of baklavas and fritters were prepared, stews and olive oil dishes were prepared in large quantities. Later on, these goodies started to be made at and sold in special shops. A typical example of it is seen in an ad in a special issue printed on silk of the Bursa Daily. This ad at the fourth page of the 9th December 1901 says that the Master Dessertmaker Hakkı from among the teachers of Hamidi Vocational School was offering in 1901-1902 Rhamadan exquisite jams, sherbets and syrups for connoisseurs. The proffered products were indicated as follows in this ad:

“Jam varieties: Ginger, longworth, pear, orange, red currant, apple, damson and plum prunes, tangerine, papaya, quince, maraschino, fig, walnut, cornelian, mulberry, jujube, grape, medlar, rose, apricot, hyacinth and bergamot.

Syrup varieties: Raspberry, violet, red currant, apricot, tangerine, walnut sprout, amber, pomegranate, ginger, orange, vanilla, sorrel, sour grape, bergamot, tamarind, poppy, strawberry, lemon, maraschino, cornelian, rose, blackberry, longworth, mint, strawberry, almond and rhubarb.

Sherbet varieties: Violet, orange, bergamot, rose and lemon.”

Names of some of the jams, sherbets and syrups made in 1901 are also seen at the part II titled “Sweets and Beverages Preceding the Coffee” in Mehmet Kamil’s “Abode of Cooks”, published in 1844 as the first Turkish cook book.

To give the reader an idea on how much the varieties of these jams and sherbets increased during the half a century that elapsed from 1844 to 1901, I quote below those mentioned in that part: Quince marmalade and its another version, guilder rose, Turkish delight, ordinary syrup and its another version, violet, oxymel, almond, strawberry, lemon, tamarind, sour grape, red currant, maraschino, rose and guilder rose custards.

A vast variety of sherbets are mentioned in Evliya Çelebi’s travelogue: Albanese Kassem sherbet, spiced sherbet, Athens’ honey sherbet, cinnamoned pilgrim sherbet, preacher'’ sherbet, cloved rose leave sherbet, cloved grape sherbet, addict’s sherbet, violet sherbet.

The use of kitchen displayed a significant increase during the wedding and circumcision ceremonies as well as in the special dinner invitations, for which every detail was used to be prepared with meticulous care.

Rhamadan is a very special and sacrosanct month for the Turks. Two meals, one before sunrise and one after the sundown are taken during Rhamadan, referred to as the sultan of all other eleven months. Throughout the month, the kitchen is in a constant activity. Under the Ottomans, the varieties of courses increased in Rhamadan at homes, in palaces, chapelets and almshouses where the sheets of dough, dried fruits and other ingredients were converted into delicious meals appealing to all palates and All copper casseroles were tinned in anticipation of Rhamadan.

As for the foods consumed in pre-sunrise and post-sundown meals, the following example which is a page of the diary kept in a Rhamadan day of 1906 by the Kadirhane Almshouse will give the reader a good inside.

“Foods served, Rhamadan, Tuesday the thirteenth:

Head table – Noodle soup, fried meat, eggs, fritters, eggplants, squash, celery, dolmas, pitta.

Other tables – Meat, gumbos, fritters, baklava, celery, spinach, pilaf. Ten tables were laid and they were fully occupied. An additional table was laid for the foot servants who were fed afterward.

The 20-oke (28 kg) carcass of mutton purchase sufficed for the service and some meat still remained.

10 oke (14 kg) of bread that was purchased was supplemented with two more okes, altogether 30 loaves, were all consumed together with 20 sesame burns and I pitta.

Coffee was cooked by Ulvi Dede and served by butlers Ali Agha, Niyazi and Şerafettin Effendis an Derwish Ahmed.

All candelabras were lit in the chapelet that was filled to the capacity in such a manner that there was not place for a single additional soul. Even the landing in front of prayer heralder was occupied.

Cooking was undertaken by an experienced cook named Mustafa Agha. He was a master in the craft of pastas.”

Another feature of the post-sundown meals was the foods consumed. The purchases were made from specialised shops. Everybody took great pains to buy their cheese from a certain delicatessen outlet and travelled a long distance to buy olives from their preferred shop. At any rate, the purchases were required to have been completed not later than half an hour before the meal time. Two sorts of olives and cheeses, pastrami, several jams in small bowls, dried dates and definitely pitta. The preparation of the table with all these hors d’oeuvres and the other meals was a ceremonial occasion in itself. The offical bread of Rhamadan was the pitta, its dessert was the rise starch fritter cooked in milk and its starter was a soup, without which the post-sundown meal was unthinkable.

The other meals varied according to the family’s financial standing. The post-sundown meals were served also at the mosques, shrines and chapelets. When the meal was taken, huge crowds went to the Hagia Sophia or Eyüp Sultan Mosques. The Rhamadan was an occasion for the people to pull themselves together and for the poets to write elegic poems for it.

The advent of Rhamadan was announced by drummers, who also woke up the people for the pre-sunrise ritual. This custom still continues today in a somewhat modified manner. Work of a drummer was accompanied by chants such as:

“Our Great Mosque makes me titter,
It takes courage to say it out,
I amwell fed, clad and stout,
But my buddy wants some fritter.”

The pre-sunrise meals were somewhat simpler than those eaten after sundown. Compost made of dried fruits, a fritter or a pilaf were the usual meals. The tea has, however, gradually begun to replace the compost.

The kitchen paraphernalia cover all pans, trays and the like used in the kitchen. They were arranged in the kitchen. They were arranged in the palaces and manors in such a way that the chefs, their helpers and ladies of the house would have them within easy reach. When a study of the ancient kitchen is made, one becomes awed at the way the kitchen and its inseparable adjuncture, the storeroom, are designed. The storeroom is the volume where all foodstuffs, beverages, containers, jars, demijohns are stores. It had started during the Bayezid I’s reign and had an ascending significance to the point that a special palace officer, namely the storewarden, came into existence. With the advent of the republic, however, it went into nearly complete oblivion. The Mohamed the Conqueror Edict clearly stated that the Emperor’s meals would be served by the storewarden. The storeroom was adjacent to the kitchen and both were outside of the house plan.

Also the water was one of the components receiving a minute attention since it was an absolute necessity for washing the fruits and vegetable, the dishes and for cooking. The drinking water used to be purchased separately, as the case still is in many larger cities. Though we do not pay much attention to what we drink for water, the older generations certainly had a water culture and were able to determine its source only by having a couple of sips. The water purchased from peddlars bringing it in cans strapped on donkeys was kept in urns placed in the kitchen and poured into jugs and carafes by ladles. Contamination of the water was avoided by stretching a clean fine gauze on the urn’s opening during filling and placing a metal or terracotta lit on it afterward.

The usage water was obtained from a well either by a hand pump or a windlass. Tin containers with faucets fitted were devised for its easy use. They were normally placed at some height over the dishwashing sink. There were in almost all houses special insulated containers having an inner jacket of crushed ice or packed snow for cooling beverages in summer time.

Cupboards protected from insects by fly nets were the predecessors of refrigerators. Cooked foods plus the cheeses, olives and other delicatessens for daily use were kept in them.

There was an abundance of shelves in the kitchen for the pots, pans, plates, galsses and the like. The appearance of these objects gave the kitchen a tinge and personality of its own. When tables entered the houses after the Restoration period and the houses after the Restoration period and the onset of the custom of eating around a table, larger kitchens started also to be used as dining rooms.

Meat grinders were a necessity in particularly the well-to-do houses. These hand-cranked appliances were preceded by two-handled rocking type knives. Sharp-pointed knives for shearing the meat from bone and cleavers for crushing bones were kept in readiness in their special racks. When the cutting instruments became dull, they were brought to a sharpener to be rehoned. There was also a sharpening stone somewhere around the kitchen for urgent use.

Porcelain or copper strainers, drainers and ladles were among the instruments were always in arm’s length. Strainer was a must for making tomato paste and preparing meat stock, sherbets, syrups and most. A mortar for pounding dried fruits or powdering grains and a heavy brass flattener for softening the chops were right on the table. Fruit and vegetable washing containers were as a rule made of tin and kept under the water dispenser.

The coffee and coffee making equipment were also in the kitchen. The elder members of the household, generally incurable coffee addicts, never pulled themselves together if they did not have a cup of coffee brewed over the ashes of the brazier in the morning. The coffee was not sold in its today’s powdered form and the green beans that were bought were roasted in small quantities in a frying pan, powdered in hand-cranked devices and used always fresh. A pinch of butter was put into the pan when the beans were roasted. In some areas, however, coffee pounded into a very fine powder in stone mortars after roasting was preferred to the one ground by hand. This process was much time-consuming and tedious. Coffee brewed to taste was served in oversized cups without handle. Seasoned coffee drinkers used to say that the best coffee was the one brewed on a brazier fire.

The roster of palace servants had included also a person named head coffee cooker. This was a rather respectable position since it enabled this person to be in the close contact with the Emperor at all times. There were coffee brewing rooms in palaces, manors and chapelets where the servants of visitors were hosted. The coffee has a privileged position in the Turkish culture, as reflected in the dicton of “One cup of bitter coffee creates a forty-year respect”.

The kitchen was really quite rich in equipment with untold numbers of jars, pots, boxes and many other containers of all descriptions were used for keeping salt, pepper, various spices, egg-frying pans, wooden spoons, cake forms, screens, meat grinding plate, grills, three frying pans of varying sizes, dessert and halva saucepans, skewers, measurement cups for olive, oil, water, rice, water, egg beaters, funnels, cutlery, frying pan lids to avoid hot oil spits, trays for pastas, jars to hold herbs used for seasoning, and boxes for smoking fish and other meats.

Putty trough, putty flattening table and putty roller were absolutely indispensable devices since the Turks had a tooth for pasta. All fritters, baklavas and other pastry desserts, bread, pittas, biscuits, cakes and other flour-based foods were all home-made. The putty flattening table was sometimes also used as a dinner table. There was always a sufficient stock of flour in the house and the screen was kept near the flour bag to prepare flour for white bread. When, for any reason whatsoever, required raw materials were not available for the planned meals, a bundle of putty was made and converted into a delicious fritter. In fact, the fritters were something that everyone expected the mother to prepare in the weekends. The brunch in smaller towns consisted of a spaghetti soup, pickles and sweets. I still remember a childhood rhyme that we used to chant:

“Hot barillos sear my throat,
I fan myself with my hat,
My eyes are blind like a bat,
Till I see baklava in tray on mat”.

The storerooms were preferred to be in the basement for added coolness. In later times, it came near the kitchen and was divided into the so-called “coarse” and “fine” parts. The latter, making up a separate section in manor and larger houses, contained cupboards with glass doors and several shelves.

The coarse storeroom had ceiling hangers for bundles of onion, garlic, dried vegetables and fruits, urns for olive oil, sugar, honey and pickles, drawers for pulses, barrels for brine and vinegar, fine dry sand pits for preserving fresh fruit, sacks and bags for starch and other sensitive ingredients, jugs and jars for treacle, most and other sour fruit juices, a scale and a strong tripod.

The fine storeroom was for keeping such kitchen and dinner necessities as porcelain bowls, jars for jams and marmalades, boxes for nuts, a couple of corkscrews, napkins, tea service sets, sherbet mugs, a variety of glasses, small plates for chasers, breakfast plates, salad bowls, table spreads and recently the ice cream containers,

The traditional Turkish meal varieties were for the first time described in a cooking book published in 1844 with the title of “Melceü’t-Tabbâhîn” (Abode of Cooks). A Mehmed Kâmil, one of the instructors at the Imperial Medical School, edited this book in twelve chapters: Soups, Kebabs, Stews, Fried meals, Fritters, Pastries, Custards, Grills, Dolmas, Pilafs, Composts and Desserts and beverages preceding the coffee.

Another such book is the “Yemek Risalesi” (Pamphlet of Meals) from the eighteenth century. This publication, currently at the Grand National Assembly Library under no 748 A 1948, was edited and published by M. Nejat Sefercioğlu. It is divided into seven chapters.

The first chapter describes the soups and gravies and their cooking.

The second covers “some new foods made of dough”.

The third handles halvas, pastries and creamed royal breads.

The fourth explains the variety of kebabs and dished to be made of mutton, lamb, fish, rabbit and other animals.

The fifth offers stews, dolmas, meatballs, roasts, pilafs and vegetable dishes and “other newly-invented dishes.”

The sixth shows the manner in which the salads and pickles.

The seventh and last chapter is about the composts and the manner in which they are prepared.

There is, however, a whole range of soups, meals, desserts, pickles, kebabs, pilafs and fritters not mentioned in these two books. Many of them were described in recent folkloric publications covering different parts of the country. Nevertheless, the kitchen of yesterday is maintained in many homes in our days. Yet, the daily life has accelerated its speed, the technology penetrated into our kitchens and the Turkish kitchen has experienced an alien invasion.

Turgut Kut brilliantly described this reality with the expression of “rapid societal change”. I am excerpting his words here: “The rapid societal change has influenced the life style, clothing and even our kitchens. Transition from manors to apartment flats, participation of women into the economic life reduced the time available for home chores and oblivion permeated the eons-old meal types. Few are not those who wonder about what look like the rice-and-meatballs dipped first into beaten eggs, fruit jelly, oleaster, jujube, treacle, medlar and most in these days of hamburger and cola.