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The importance of culinary art for the Ottoman Sultans is evident to every visitor of Topkapı Palace. The palace houses several separate kitchens beneath ten domes in a number of different buildings. By the 17th century, approximately 1,300 kitchen staff were housed and employed in the Palace full-time. The cooks specialized in many different dishes and would feed as many as ten thousand people a day and, in addition, sent trays of food to others in the city as a royal favor.
The importance of food has been also evident in the structure of the Ottoman military elite, the Janissaries. The commanders of the main divisions were known as the Soupmen, other high-ranking officers were the Chief Cook, Scullion, Baker, and Pancake Maker. The huge cauldron used to make pilaf had a special symbolic significance for the Janissaries, as the central focus of each division. The kitchen was also the center of politics, for whenever the Janissaries demanded a change in the Sultan's Cabinet, or the head of a grand vizier, they would overturn their pilaf cauldron. "Overturning the cauldron" is an expression still used today to indicate an action of rebellion in the ranks.
It was in this environment that hundreds of the Sultans' chefs, who dedicated their lives to their profession, developed and perfected the dishes of Turkish cuisine, which then influenced the kitchens of the provinces ranging from the Balkans to Southern Russia, and reaching Western North Africa. Istanbul was for centuries the undisputed capital of the Muslim world and had all the prestige and imitation of its customs was widespread. The city was supported by an enormous organization and infrastructure including organized trade routes and caravansarais, which enabled a constant inflow of treasure and outflow of cultural influence supported by the Ottoman security forces. The Silk Road, which was the only organized means of culinary communication between East and West before the voyage of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope to India, was under the full control of the Sultan. Only the highest quality ingredients were allowed to be traded under the strict standards established by the courts.
Guilds played an important role in development and sustenance of the Cuisine. All of the principal trades were believed to be sacred and each guild traced its patronage to the Prophets and saints. The guilds held great authority in price-setting and quality control. They displayed their products and talents in spectacular floats driven through Istanbul streets during special occasions, such as the circumcision festivities for the Crown Prince or religious holidays.
Following the example of Topkapı Palace, almost all of the grand Ottoman houses boasted elaborate and expansive kitchens and competed in preparing feasts for each other as well as the general public. This is how the traditional cuisine evolved and spread beyond the physical and creative confines of the palace, even to the most modest corners of the state.
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.
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.
Excluding its successor Turkish cuisine, the Ottoman cuisine has strongly influenced other cuisines such as Persian cuisine, Armenian cuisine, Cypriot cuisine, that of the Balkans (Greek cuisine, Bulgarian cuisine, Romanian cuisine, Macedonian cuisine, Albanian cuisine, Serbian cuisine, Bosnian cuisine), and that of the Middle East (Levantine cuisine, Lebanese cuisine, Syrian cuisine, Iraqi cuisine, Jordanian cuisine, Palestinian cuisine, and Israeli cuisine).
Some of the more extravagant dishes remained as palace specialities and have had only limited diffusion:
- Roasted Pigeon
- Ayva Kalye
- Kavun Dolma (Stuffed Melon)
It is clear that Ottoman cuisine was unified and refined in imperial Istanbul, but its 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.
- Fragner, p. 52
- Fragner, p. 53
- 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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