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The Seljuk-era foodways of the Turkic tribes, influenced by the cultures they had encountered during their migrations from the Altay Mountains to Anatolia, was characterized by wheat and mutton dishes, with seafood dishes becoming more prominent following their expansion to coastal regions.
Ottoman cuisine represents the synthesis of these Central Asian, Iranian, Arab and Anatolian roots with other foodways that were introduced during expansionary phases, including Hungarian, Albanian, Greek, Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Bosnian cuisine. According to Fragner, while the origins of the legacy are impossible to ascertain, this form of "mutual exchange and enrichment" is a typical feature of culinary history.
Maxime Rodinson has argued that food historians "need to show that they do not have a common, parallel origin in Graeco-Roman cooking before we adduce any oriental influence" of foods. According to Rodinson, this is because Latin Europe, Islam and the Byzantine Empire all evolved from "the civilization of antiquity".
The influence of Ottoman cuisine in Europe beginning in the early 16th-century is seen in dishes like sharbat, which spread first to Italy after Franceso I de'Medici requested a recipe for "Turkish sorbette" in 1577. Rice pudding, described in contemporaneous sources as "Turkish-style rice", was served at the wedding of Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara in 1529. Koz halva (a type of nougat), first recorded in a 13th-century Arabic cookbook, is found in Central European cuisine, where it is called Törökméz ('Turkish honey') in Hungarian, and Türkischer Honig in Austria and southern Germany.
Ottoman cuisine also incorporates many New World foodstuffs, which contributed to the development of the cuisine's unique character as compared to its predecessors and its neighbors. Turkey (tavuk-ı hindi) was such an ingredient, as were haricot beans and cayenne pepper, introduced to Ottoman cuisine in the 19th century. Also from the Americas were potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin, corn and zucchini. Although tomatoes had entered the cuisine by the 1690s, they do not appear to have enjoyed the popularity that they do in modern Turkish cuisine. The 19th-century Ottoman cookbook Melceü't-Tabbahin includes tomatoes in only a handful of recipes.
The Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, representing a wide range of climate zones and flora and fauna, and so the cuisine includes not only the cuisine of the Ottoman Palace, but a rich diversity of regional specialties.
Butter and olive oil
Clarified butter was the favorite cooking fat of the Ottoman Palace. Butter was used for pilafs, sweet pastries, savory börek, and other dishes. Olive oil, although used in the palace cooking since the time of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, was used mostly for lighting lamps and in the manufacture of soaps. Its use in cuisine was limited, but included stuffed vegetables (dolma), salad and pilaki.
Hans Dernschwam, a 16th-century German traveler, confirms that çorba (Ottoman Turkish: چوربا) was a common dish of this period, prepared with butter and rice for the janissary corps. According to Dernschwam, most 16th-century Ottoman soups began with a base of chicken stock and rice, with different vegetables added, although lamb stock was also used. Garlicky işkembe çorbası (tripe soup) was sold in the early morning hours by Ottoman Greeks as a hangover cure.
Soup could be thickened with a mixture of egg and flour or bread and an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice, and served over stale bread. This style of soup could be found, with some variations, in Balkan territories like Romania and Hungary, as well as in Turkey.
One of the many dishes recorded by Evliya Çelebi in his Book of Travels (Seyahatnâme) is an anchovy dish from Trebizond. Cooked in a stoneware pan, the anchovies are arranged in rows and covered with a cinnamon and black pepper scented mixture of leeks, celery, parsley and onions. The vegetable and fish layers alternate to fill up the pan, and olive oil is poured over the top. Çelebi described the dish as "like congealed light, and one who eats it is full of light ... This fish is indeed a table from heaven".
When Mehmed II took the city of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks gained control of the spice trade in the eastern Mediterranean. The trans-Egyptian spice trade had been devastated by a Circassian coup in Egypt and the Portuguese Indian Ocean trade. Spices were used in health tonics produced by the palace confectionary that could be consumed as sweets and for health purposes, and could include up to 60 different spices in their preparation.
According to Evliya Çelebi, the local melons in Diyarbekir were seasoned with cinnamon and cloves, according to the "recipe of Caliph Mu'awiya". The upper echelons of Ottoman society ate aniseed perfumed bread. Other sources provide information on spice consumption by the common people of Istanbul. Hot milk beverages sold by street vendors were sprinkled with fragrant cinnamon or ginger. Fish stews often included cinnamon, and kebabs could be spiced with cumin. Breads were made with seeds, cumin and spices either mixed into the dough or sprinkled on top.
A 17th-century report says that the used of spice in Istanbul was moderate and mostly limited to black pepper, but as the intensity of spice is subjective, other reports differ. The 16th-century Flemish herbalist and diplomat Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq described the Ottoman culinary culture as "very frugal", with a simple meal of bread and salt, garlic or onion and yoghurt being all that was needed for nourishment. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing in the 18th-century, says Ottomans use "a great deal of rich spice", and that she was unable to eat the food as the intensity of flavors took their toll on her and she "began to grow weary of it and desired our own cook might add a dish or two after our manner".
Sugar was still prohibitively costly in the 17th-century; far more common were honey and syrups like pekmez, made with grapes.
The wheat berry pudding aşure, in modern times a part of the Islamic holy day Ashura, has roots in the harvest rituals of the Neolithic period, since which time domesticated wheat is known to have been cultivated at Karaca Dağ.
There are multiple competing theories of the origin of baklava, variously ascribing it to the Ancient Roman placenta cake, Perisan lauzinaj or the influence of Central Asian desserts, found also in the layered dessert güllaç, thin sheets of pastry dough soaked in rosewater-infused milk and layered with chopped nuts and pomegranate. Dernschwam describes a baklava-like dish made by cooking thin wafers of starch flour and egg white, then filling with layers of sugared nuts with rosewater and nutmeg to create a dessert about as thick as a finger.
Dernschwam describes zerde as rice pudding that is cooked in honeyed water and colored with saffron, garnished with toasted almonds and served with fruits. Muhallebi is also listed among the foods Dernschwam encountered on his travels.
Dernschwam wrote that, while cabbage was found, the Turks did not know how to cook it with beef like the Hungarians, saying they instead pickled it, a common preparation in those days.
Dernschwam described a dish stuffed vegetable dish of young pumpkins and aubergines (which he calls podliczschan), stuffed with cubed mutton and garlic filling, and served with yogurt. He also describes the dish called sarma or stuffed vine leaves cooked with sour plums, which he compares with a rolled krapfen (a type of filled pastry from German cuisine).
Of the four Ottoman Palaces, Edirne Palace, Topkapı Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace and Yıldız Palace, it is Topkapı that for 400-years oversaw the development of the classical Ottoman palace cuisine. Topkapı could host up to 4,000 persons at a time and the kitchen staff was huge. At one 18th-century event at least 1,000 chefs were required to prepare a meal of pilaf, soup and zerde for 10,000 attendant janissaries.
Ottoman palace 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 houses (yalis) of the pashas, and from there on to the people at large.
A palace register from 1692 lists different kinds of vegetables eaten in the palace, squash (kabak-ı Mısır), celery, lettuce (marul), cucumber, garlic, aubergines, borage (lisan-ı seveir), cowpeas, spinach, turnips, vine leaves, Jew's mallow (müluhiye), beets, carrots and okra. Parsley, dill, mint, and tarragon are also listed among the foodstuffs allocated for the sultan. Green tomatoes (kavata) are listed for the hasseki sultan (the sultan's favorite concubine), who also received snow for iced coffee and to cool sharbat and hoşab. Chicken was reserved for the elite, and pigeon only for the sultan, hasseki, other potential concubines and princesses. Some large portions allotted to non-imperial high-ranking servants like the female steward of the harem, who received one sheep and 10 chickens per day, indicate that persons in these roles were responsible for feeding their subordinates.
Pepper and cinnamon were the dominant spices of the 18th-century Ottoman court, used in huge quantities, such as 118 kg (260 lb) of pepper and over 1 kg (2.2 lb) of mastic for a 15-day festival attended by various dignitaries in 1720. Black pepper was immensely popular in early modern European cuisine, and was used in nearly all Ottoman dishes.
Mutton, clarified butter, flour and rice were the most common ingredients in the 19th century palace cuisine. Butter and yogurt, made with milk from Egyptian and Dutch cows, were purchased from the Üsküdar and Eyüp markets. The most common cheeses were kaşar, kaşkaval, tulum peyniri and beyaz peynir. Typical spices included cinnamon, clove, saffron, cumin, sumac, nutmeg, oregano, mastic, cardamom and black pepper.
Compared with earlier centuries, more fish, roe and caviar were consumed, including the pickled bonito dish called lakerda. Roe and Beluga caviar were even served for the iftar meal during Ramadan. Offal meats were more common than lamb meat, which was a seasonal luxury item. More common were tripe, liver and trotters. Beef was only used in the production of pastırma and sucuk.
Some 19th century ingredients were new, not known from past centuries, such as Viennese barley and pasta (makaronya), the spices allspice and vanilla, and ingredients introduced from the Americas such as turkey, cayenne pepper and haricot beans.
Rice was mostly imported from Egypt and used to make pilaf. Bread was made with wheat and classified according to the quality and origin of the flour. White, refined flour was considered to make the finest bread called nan-ı hassü'l-hass. There were many types of bread baked in the palace kitchens—flat white bread (fodula), loaves of good quality whole wheat (somun) and white bread (fırancala) and filo (yufka).
Starch was used to make the dessert güllaç during the month of Ramadan. The palace kitchens used two types of sugar, granulated and loaf sugar, in large quantities; however, sugar was too expensive for any but the wealthiest members of Ottoman society, and desserts, compotes and sharbat were more likely to be sweetened with dry fruits, molasses or honey.
- Roasted pigeon
- Ayva dolma and kalye (vegetable—or fruit as in this case—cooked without meat, with olive oil and tomato salça after a short sautéing)
- Kavun dolması (stuffed melon)
The simat al-Khalil (table of Abraham) custom of pre-Ottoman Hebron was to host and feed travelers. According to Nasir Khusraw, any guest to Hebron received a bowl of lentils with olive oil, a round loaf of bread and raisins. The simat in Hebron, which was reinstated by the Mamluk sultan Qaytbay in the 15th century, was still serving lentils each day in the 16th century. On Thursday evenings pomegranate seeds and seasoned rice (ruzz mufalfal) were served. According to Mujir al-Din, all were welcome at the simat al-Khalil. Evliya Çelebi, writing in the 17th-century, said "each person had his bowl filled with the soup of Abraham, enough for the subsistence of men with their families. I [Evliya] was also fortunately among the group of those poor. I received a plate of wheat soup, a gift from God. I never witness such a tasty meal at the table of either viziers or men of learning".
At the Haseki Sultan Imaret in Jerusalem guests received two bowls of soup each day, enriched with clarified butter, and including legumes, grains, root vegetables and other seasonal ingredients, and always served with bread. On Fridays, and for special occasions like iftar, Eid celebrations and other holy days like Aşure, Mevlud and Berat, lamb and rice would be served instead of soup, and zerde (rice pudding with honey and saffron).
All travelers were welcome to three days of basic meals at the imaret in Fatih, İstanbul, but the special service of bread, honey and sweets upon arrival was limited to guests of the caravansarai (roadside inn). Two soups were served each day, rice soup in the mornings, and wheat soup in the evenings, similar to the Jerusalem kitchens, but with meat and fresh parsley. The Friday menu was lamb with rice, zerde, and zırbaç (a dessert puddings with dried fruits and nuts). The highest ranking guests ate lamb and rice every day. When members of the ashraf were in attendance, they were served sheep's trotters (paça) for breakfast each day, with hearty lamb and rice portions, and a spiced squash dish sweetened with honey, cloves and cinnamon. 3,300 loaves of bread were baked each day by the kitchens and leftovers distributed to the poor.
Beginning in the 19th century the Ottomans began using French culinary terms at diplomatic events. French cuisine was considered, in those times, the epitome of culinary accomplishment and its influence was felt not only in the Ottoman court, but also other European courts, where French chef Marie-Antoine Carême cooked in the imperial kitchens of the Russian Empire, and Alphonse Gouffe was Head Pastry Chef to Queen Victoria. Banquet menus for international dignitaries were written in French and service à la russe replaced service à la française at formal dinners. Ottoman pilaf, börek and kebabs continued to be served. Food remained a symbol of Ottoman power and prestige and the adaptation of French culinary practices to Ottoman palace cuisine reflected the Ottoman desire to prove themselves the cultural equal of Europeans.
Menus of formal banquets at the imperial court dating to the early 20th century show the use of French terms and their Turkish equivalents:
|Consommé||Et suyu||Meat stock|
|Consommé à la Reine||Et suyu||Meat stock (Chicken consommé thickened with tapioca)|
|Consommé de volaille glacé||Soğuk tavuk suyu||Cold chicken consommé|
|Créme de fruits||Kaymaklı meyve tatlısı||Fruits with whipped cream|
|Fraises voilées||Kaymaklı çilek||Strawberries with whipped cream|
|Gâteux aux fruits||Meyveli pasta||Fruitcake|
|Gâteux aux amandes||Bademli pasta||Almond cake|
|Gâteux Marquise||Çikolata tatlısı||Chocolate Marquise cake|
|Gâteux panaché||Yemişli bademli pasta||Ice-cream cake with fruits|
|Gaufrettes Sultanié||Kaymaklı yaprak tatlısı||Sultan's waffles|
|Glace aveline||Dondurma||(Hazelnut) ice cream|
|Granité glacé aux fraises||Çilekli dondurma||Strawberry sorbet|
|Mont Blanc||Mont Blanc pastry|
|Neige d'Ananas||Ananaslı dondurma||Pineapple sorbet|
|Tarte à la Chambord||Şambor tatlısı||Chambord dessert tart|
|Vacherin Chantilly||Kremalı tatlı||Meringue dessert|
Ottoman culinary influence survived the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the Fertile Crescent, Anatolia, Balkans and Greece. Fragner notes that these cuisines, in the modern forms, "offer treacherous circumstantial evidence of this fact" of their shared cultural history, but he also notes that "they represent at the same time a good deal of local or regional culinary traditions." Coffeehouses developed first in the Ottoman Empire and spread to Italy, then across Europe.
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- Fragner, 3
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- Krauth findt man, aber die t[urken] kunnens nicht kochen mit rindtfleisch wie in Vngern. Die t[urken] pflegens sawer einzumachen wie auch daussen.
- Reindl-Kiel, Hedda (2018). "Records of Food Distribution in the Saray". Earthly Delights. Brill. pp. 69–79.
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- Tarım ve köyişleri bakanlığı dergisi. Yayın Dairesi Başkanlığı Matbaası. 1998.
- Şirvânî, Muhammed bin Mahmûd-ı; Argunşah, Mustafa (2005). 15. yüzyıl Osmanlı mutfağı (in Turkish). Gökkubbe. ISBN 978-975-6223-84-0.
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- Fragner, p. 52
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- 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.