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Kitchen Servants and Mensal Customs in the Ottoman Palace


There are some common traditional traits observable and observed at all times in the Ottoman palace kitchen. These traditions and implementations underwent, however, some changes from one Sultan and palace to the other. The services and mensal customs had begun to change particularly after Abdulmecid, that is, when the palaces along the İstanbul Strait had become official imperial residences. From this time onward, we see a trend toward becoming more European, although some researchers date the use of forks and knives as far back as to the reign of Mahmud II who used to order for the arrangement of Western type of buffets in some palatial wedding ceremonies and during the visits of foreign princes. It is known that the table cutlery was presented to Mahmud II by Hüsrev Paşa. Dinners given to foreign dignitaries by Abdulmecid and Abdulaziz in Dolmabahçe Palace and by Abdulhamid II in Yıldız Palace are the typical examples of the trend to adopt Western customs. Some of these dinners even brought male and female groups together. Nevertheless, the palace life did not break off from the Islamic traditions with the exception of the occasions of receiving foreign statesmen and the practice did not go beyond the use of eating at tables and using cutlery. The low tables and seating on cushions with legs crossed around them continued still for a long time even at the palaces.

As will be inferred from what has been said, the eating, kitchen services and mensal traditions were not limited to the emperors. In fact, there are quite a lot of things need to be said with respect to the kitchen and the table beyond the meals of sultans. Great expenditures in the accounting ledgers to have been incurred in connection with the wedding ceremonies of imperial princes and princesses and the circumcision feasts of heirs to throne may be explained with large masses of invitees including the statesmen, foreign representatives and people. An interesting point with such get-togethers is the excessive amounts of butter, saffron and sugar, suggesting the preparation of large quantities of halvas and saffroned desserts. Sugar was being used also for the manufacture of vividly-coloured and oversized human and animal statues placed on horsecarts ant toted around the city to draw the people’s attention. These statues were created by a group of craftsmen called “sugar embroiders” (Nakkaşan-ı sükker).

Palace Museum In the wedding ceremony held for Sultan Murad III’s son and heir Mehmet at the hippodrome, were offered every night about one thousand platters of pilaf, one loaf of bread for each platter and sixteen to twenty oxen roasted on spits with horns and hoofs and all. The people used to attack this food in such a manner that the entire hippodrome became filled with shards of platters and rice scattered everywhere.

D’Hosson states that the Turks did not have the habit of having their meals collectively, regardless of whether one is in a palace or among the laymen outside of wedding parties and feasts.

Nomismatelia, or payday to soldiers, was a special occasion for the emperors to receive foreign ambassadors. The luxury of the meal offered to the janissaries and the colourful events that accompanied it were thus deliberately shown to foreigners. Special tableware were laid to show the State’s wealth, army pay was lined up in small purses and the coins in one of them were poured onto a wooden plate to prove that they really contained money. Giraffes, lions and panthers kept in the palace garden were also shown to the ambassadors.

Memories of many ambassadors depict as an interesting sight the rush of janissaries to the soup saucepans placed along the palace awnings. Dinner to ambassadors and dignitaries was given in a hall separated by curtains. The menus of these dinners were quite different and rich in varieties in order to impress the invitees.

As for the holidays, imperial post-sundown meals and visits to Prophet’s belongings, it should be pointed out that the Topkapı Palace had begun to be visited solely on special occasions with the start o use of İstanbul Strait palaces. The visit of Prophet’s coat on the fifteenth day of Rhamadan every year was one of those occasions. The invitations to this visit were extended by delivery to the invitees incense water in special bottles. Those receiving them traditionally gave tips to the delivery officials of the palace. The routine post-sundown meal was eggs fried on onions and baklava.

In his book titled The Palace History, Tayyarzade Atâ Bey describes the holiday meals as follows:

“The Sergeant-at-Arms and his secundo dismounted their horses and saw the Emperor off at the Sublime Port. The Emperor then dismounted his own horse, entered through the Main Gate amidst the applauses of Guard Corps officers and repaired to the main dinner room together with the grand vizier, viziers and the palace officials where the were entertained with a luxury dinner while the janissaries had the soups specially brewed for them in the imperial kitchens. It was a tradition to run for the soups”.

In the Rhamadan and sacrifice holidays, the emperor was expected to personally slaughter one of the animals sacrificed for the palace. Upon return from prayers, the Emperor sat at an armchair beside the fountain erected in front of the Harem section and the Sergeant-at-Arms brought the rams to be sacrificed. Animals were blindfolded with silk bands brought by the Sergeant of Treasury who then wrapped a silk belt around Emperor’s waist. The Chief Cutlery Master brought the knives in a silver tray and Emperor’s guardsman selected one and handed it over to him. Carcasses of sacrificed animals were distributed to palace servants in a variety of sections.

On the tenth day of Muharrem (the first month in lunar calendar), a decakyle (aşure) was prepared and sent to important palace officials in special bowls. There were several spices, of which the types and amounts were determined by the Chief Imperial Physician, in the springday dessert (nevruziye).

As was said before, the foreign dignitaries invited to the Ottoman palace after Sultan Abdülmecid were entertained in the Western manner. The dinners given at Yıldız Palace for Kaiser Wilhelm II and his family are particularly interesting among them. One of these dinners was given in the small imperial kiosk where Kaiser Wilhelm’s son and the Burhanettin Efendi, the younger prince, gave a joint piano concert to the guests. The latter is known with his particular ability on this instrument.

In all sections of the palace and at all levels of invitees, rose attar and incense water were offered and ewers, basins and towels were made available for the guests to wash their hands, and sherbet, coffee and tobacco were served afterward. This Ottoman tradition has gradually spread to highranking officials, pashas and richer citizens.

As noted from the miniatures and oils, only the foreign ambassadors sat on chairs in the imperial dinners given in Topkapı Palace before nineteenth century, while the viziers and high ranking officials were on cushions around low tables placed on a cloth spread. This tradition was valid also for the emperor.

The palace tables were placed large and gold-embroidered red, violet and blue spreads and servants placed napkins on the knees of everyone. The meals were brought from the kitchen on large trays. Since these trays were designed to carry meals for four or five persons, also the groups were arranged in these numbers. Everyone had his own fork, knife, spoon, glass and napkin. They were washed after the dinner by the users themselves and kept in their own cupboards. The harem meals were served by young kitchen apprentice girls in the Yıldız Palace.

Since the Westernisation movement had started before the Restoration period, the culinary traditions and repertories had started to feel the brunt of the change. Particularly during the reign of Abdülhamid II and afterward, names of Western specialties and chefs had started to appear, and uniforms of the chefs had also begin to alter.

The most important event was the start of the custom of eating at tables. The Western style furniture of the palaces evidence that the transformation had already started during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II. This movement had really accelerated, however under Sultan Abdülmecid.

There are a considerable number of dinner tables of different dimensions and shapes, encircled by chairs, in the furniture of Dolmabahçe Palace and Mecidiye Kiosk at Topkapı Palace and in kiosks within the bounds of Yıldız Palace.

This change necessitated an alteration of the meal service to the tables and royal servants who received waitership training undertook this task. Much favourable comments were made on the service given by them to the foreign dignitaries at Yıldız Palace during Abdülhamid II’s reign and at Dolmabahçe Palace during Mehmet Reşad’s.

Several photographs taken at the Chalet of Yıldız Palace and the main kiosk before the start of such stately dinners evidence the success of the adoption of Western style and the success in implementation.

As to the kitchen servants, it was shown that the meals for the viziers and harem inhabitants were prepared in the imperial kitchen, of which a special section with a group of hand-picked chefs was reserved for the Emperor’s own meals. According to Tavernier, there were also seven other kitchens in the palace, each being run by a separate chef. Privy kitchen served the Emperor, her mother’s kitchen cooked for higher-ranking women of harem, gynagogal kitchen provided the meals of eunuchs, Imperial Council officials had meals cooked in the diocesal kitchen. Independent kitchens existed for the Chargé of Treasury, Storewarden and Guard Commander and their subordinates.

Though the numbers changed from time to time, the staffs of these kitchens providing food for around 4000 persons during normal days and up offering soup, pilaf and saffroned custard to janissaries in Nomismatelia occasions were counted around 500 employees in the eighteenth century. A further 400 should be added to this figure for dessert makers in charge of halvas, sherbets and pastes.

Master craftsmen among the cooks were called imperial chefs, to whom were reporting journeymen, apprentices and novices. Roughly 300 cooks and 100 special chefs for eunuchs, storewarden and his subordinates and imperial sergeants and their lackeys should complement the picture.

Special menus were prepared, whenever necessary, for the upper strata in harem by such specialised personnel as chefs, cooks, grillers, kebabists, dessert makers, pastry cooks, pilaf makers, seafood experts and diet meal experts.

The imperial cooking staff consisted of two chefs from the group of hallebardiers and a sufficient number of cooks and servants. Cooking was made in one-portion saucepans. When the Emperor was on warpath, his private kitchen travelled together with him. They are known to have actually and successfully taken part in combat at Kosovo and Mohaç.

Desserts such as halvas, pastes and composts were made by the halva cooks. Those excelled in their trade rose to chief halva maker, chief paste maker and chief compost maker. This section counted 6 chefs and over 100 neophytes in the eighteenth century. There was a special halva room next to the imperial kitchen at Topkapı Palace and some of the pastes were prepared under the supervision of chief physician since some of them were supposed to have healing properties for some diseases.

The special paste made once year during a socalled phytonyctal night was distributed to all palace officials and the kitchen staff had the opportunity of having a feast of their own at their hearts content.

Bread for the palace was baked by a group made up of bakers, dough makers and flour sievers. Pitta bakery was a separate unit.

In addition to all these employees should be mentioned the butchers, yoghurt makers, greengrocers, chicken sellers, ice and snow providers, tinners, candle-makers, wheat pounders, water bearers and seven platoons of storewardens, who were all under the command and control of the chief storewarden at the palace.

As for the imperial table, Mohamed the Conqueror declared the following in his edict:

“No person other than my family members is entitled to share my table. My intent is not to follow the path of my ancestors who are said to eat together with their viziers.”

It is obvious that Mohamed the Conqueror ate alone or only with persons very close to him and refused to eat together even with his viziers. His edict described how and under which conditions the viziers were entitled to eat in the palace, and ordered that the leftovers should be served to imperial wardens, palace servants and other employees, obviously in an attempt to give them the prestige of eating the same food as that served to viziers and also to avoid wastage. The higher officials were held, however, to have their meals within their own groups.

Woyciech Bodowski, who later became one of the imperial palace wardens with the name of Ali Ufki Bey, says in describing the seventeenth century palace life that “The Emperor ate alone in his apartment or terrace or in the garden, used his fingers and a spoon and washed his hands with soap afterward”.

Meals to be served to the Emperor were carried on trays and in lidded copper saucepans. Due to his known toxicophobia, food trays of Sultan Abdülhamid II were covered with a cloth, of which the ends were tied and sealed for safety purposes. His bread basket, water and sherbet carafes received the same treatment. Since he only drank the water from Kâğıthane spring, nobody was permitted to the vicinity of this source.

Meals were served to the Emperor by one of the overseers of harem. His napkin was handed over to him by one of the senior storewardens. Sultan Abdülhamid II changed this tradition and had the chief storewarden to serve him in the meals. Ewer master was in charger of washing the Emperor’s hands after the meal. The distribution of these duties was among the responsibilities of the Privy Sergeant. Once strolling in incognito in the City of Karaman during an expedition, Mohamed the Conqueror saw a janissary cook cussing around in the street and accusing the merchant. Curious to learn the reason why, he sent his grand vizier to find it out. He learned that the cook was ired because he could not find a pound of meat in the market and that such a situation would not arise if he were the responsible administrator there. It is reported that the Emperor made him the municipal police commissioner first and, seeing that he was successful in his duties, raised him to the position of Grand Vizier through the ranks. History has it that this person was none other than Gedik Ahmet Pasha.