Sophisticated recipes of the Ottoman Turks

The foods that people prepare in different civilizations and the habits that are associated with the consumption of food can be a fascinating source of information on any given culture. One realizes this when reading «The Ottoman Cuisine, 99 Court Recipes,» recently published by Potamos Publishers. Written by Marianna Gerasimou, a Greek born and raised in Istanbul who has specialized in the cultural history of the Ottoman Empire – particularly its cuisine – the book has been translated from the original Turkish by Katerina Stathi. The Potamos edition is an enriched version of the original, redesigned with a new layout and additional illustrations (reproductions of original miniature drawings). The bulk of the book is made up of recipes that were prepared in the Ottoman court from the 15th to the 19th century. Instead of the standard, well-known recipes, such as imam baildi, the reader will find an unusual and exotic array of flavorsome foods. Their sumptiousness and sophistication reflect the opulent life of the sultan and the Ottoman court and have nothing in common with the simpler diet of the lay folk nor with the cuisine outside the main capital. The recipes were gleaned from a variety of original sources, many unrelated to gastronomy (literature, the palace’s food supply lists, travelers’ writings or books on the history and society of the Ottoman Empire), which the author studied in order to piece together a complete image of what the highest echelon of Ottoman Turk society ate. Before writing the book, Gerasimou actually cooked all the recipes so as to test their taste for the contemporary palate. Besides being a practical guide, the book is a vital documentation of Ottoman cuisine and an interesting account of the cultural history of the empire as seen through food and its consumption. An extended introduction examines diverse subjects, such as how the Ottoman courtier behaved at the table, the ceremonies associated with meals, life in the court as related to the preparation of food and the influences of different cultures in shaping Ottoman cuisine. Centuries of history coalesce in the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire: There are Arabian influences from the Avvasids during the ninth century, Persian influences from the Palace of the Saffavids, cuisine from Central Asia and 13th century Anatolia. Apparently, the influence of Byzantine fare remains ambivalent. Those that claim that the roots of Ottoman gastronomy lie in Central Asia cite the prevalence of shish kebab or bourekias as examples. Researchers who place the Ottoman cuisine’s roots in Byzantium list fish and cooked vegetable dishes. Both arguments ignore the strong Arabian and Persian influences which can be traced in the dishes, sweets or drinks, such as rice, halvades, or serbetia, all fundamental to Ottoman cuisine. Apparently, during the 15th and 16th centuries, Ottoman and Middle Eastern prepared foods bear a noteworthy resemblance. Contrary to what some may think, the Ottomans did not use olive oil in their cuisine but butter. Use of olive oil was limited to use in lamps and the preparation of drugs and is absent from all recipes in the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 17th century. Generally speaking, the main courses of Ottoman court cuisine were based on kebabs made with meat or poultry, a large gamut of rices, cooked meat with fruit, nuts and spices, vegetables cooked with meat and butter, savory soups and a huge variety of sweet soups. The highest ranks also enjoyed salads, pickles, cheese and less often, fish. Pepper and saffron were the most frequently used spices and sweet and sour recipes with fresh and dried fruits as well as honey seem to have been preferred. Mustard, cinnamon and cumin as well as onions and garlic were used amply in the recipes. An imaginative mix of spices provided dishes with zest and unique flavors: a blend of coriander, cinnamon and cumin for cooked meats and fish or a mix of saffron, cinnamon and pimento for rices (there are also rice recipes with mastic) are examples. However, contrary to the Arabs, the Romans or the Europeans during medieval times, the Ottoman Turks did not use large amounts of spices in their cooking. The drinks that accompanied meals were not water but serbetia and compotes. The Islamic doctrine banned alcohol which was only consumed in limited quantities by the aristocrats and, at the very opposite end, the lowest classes. After the middle of the 16th century, smoking and the serving of coffee after dinner became prevalent. Overabundance is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ottoman palace cuisine. Hundreds of people and trusted, specialized chefs were involved in the preparation of dozens of dishes, all served at one supper. The sultan and his highest officials only had a taste of each of the dozen plates which continuously graced the table during an almost ceremonial and quiet repast. One also learns that the Ottomans ate just twice a day, in the early morning and right before dusk. A snack was sometimes served in between. Until the 19th century, they ate with their hands – as did the ancient Greeks and Byzantines up until the 11th century – and only used spoons (some elaborately carved) for soups, rice and compotes. Contrary to the Roman symposia, Ottoman court dinners were served in silence and enjoyed with no other distraction. Unlike the Europeans, they did not have special halls for dining but ate from almost ground-level low tables positioned in common rooms or in the garden. A modest table setting was paired with a lush and sophisticated menu. The Potamos publication offers knowledge into this intricate cuisine and provides the contemporary reader with an opportunity to prepare and taste a broad variety of Ottoman court cuisine.

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