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It is clear that Ottoman cuisine was unified and refined in imperial Istanbul, but the ultimate origins of many of its component parts are less clear.
It is a matter of mere speculation whether the origins of this imperial culinary legacy are to be traced back to Greek antiquity, the Byzantine heritage, or the Turkish and Arab nations, not forgetting Phoenician and Jewish traditions; nowadays you may find support for any of these claims in various countries in the Balkans and the Near East.
The food historian, Iranologist and Ottomanologist Bert Fragner emphasizes the importance of New World foodstuffs in defining Ottoman cuisine, which adopted them more rapidly than France, Italy, and northern Europe.
The center of Ottoman cuisine was Istanbul, the capital, where the imperial court and the metropolitan elites established a refined culinary tradition bringing together elements of regional cuisines from across the empire:
...despite the disintegration of the Ottoman political empire, we can still see the survival of a large region which could be called the Ottoman culinary empire. The Balkans, Greece, Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent... are common heirs to what was once the Ottoman life-style, and their cuisines offer treacherous circumstantial evidence of this fact. Of course, they represent at the same time a good deal of local or regional culinary traditions. Besides, one should not forget that it is typical of any great cuisine in the world to be based on local varieties and on mutual exchange and enrichment among them, but at the same time to be homogenized and harmonized by a metropolitan tradition of refined taste.
Ottoman palace cuisine
This diverse cuisine was amalgamated and honed in the Imperial Palace's kitchens by chefs brought from certain parts of the empire to create and experiment with different ingredients. These chefs were tested and hired by their method of cooking rice, a simple dish. They were brought over from various places for the express purpose of experimenting with exotic textures and ingredients and inventing new dishes.
Each cook specialized in specific tasks. All dishes intended for the sultan were first passed by the palate of the Chesnidjibashi, or imperial food taster, who tested the food for both poison and taste. The creations of the Ottoman palace's kitchens also filtered to the common population, for instance through Ramadan events, and through the cooking at the yalis of the pashas, and from there on to the people at large.
Some of the more extravagant dishes remained as palace specialities and have had only limited diffusion:
- Roasted Pigeon
- Ayva Kalye
- Kavun Dolma (Stuffed Melon)
Regional culinary influence
The traditions of Ottoman cuisine continue in Turkish cuisine, Azerbaijani cuisine, Persian cuisine, Armenian cuisine, Georgian cuisine, Ukrainian cuisine, Cypriot cuisine, Greek cuisine, Balkan cuisine (Bulgarian cuisine, Romanian cuisine, Macedonian cuisine, Albanian cuisine, Serbian cuisine, Bosnian cuisine), and Middle Eastern cuisine (Levantine cuisine, Lebanese cuisine, Syrian cuisine, Iraqi cuisine, Jordanian cuisine, Israeli cuisine, Egyptian cuisine, Palestinian cuisine, and Saudi cuisine).
- Fragner, p. 53
- Fragner, p. 52
- Bert Fragner, "From the Caucasus to the Roof of the World: a culinary adventure", in Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, London and New York, 1994 and 2000, ISBN 1-86064-603-4.
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