Dining table of the Sultan and Matbah-ı Amire
Wouldn’t you like some Borani-i hassa? And maybe some cantaloupe stuffing? Or would you rather have some Tutmaç soup as a starter?
If you like, we can serve you Göce soup as well. Dırdır Kebab, Nızbaç, Zırbaç, Kirde... And as dessert, we can offer you Helva-i Hakani, Helva-i güllabiye, Terkib-i Çeşm-i Şir, İshakiye or gummy custard, shredded weed in syrup with custard, Zerde or Paluze! Wouldn’t an ice-cold cornelian cherry syrup be cool too? How about some mint berry syrup or some Demirhindi syrup, which is almost the official drink of the palace?
The Ottoman state was founded in 1299. It survived until the 20th century. During this period of 600 years, it became an empire. Sultans came in, princes, grand viziers, heads of provincial treasuries passed by. The sultan was called “the earthly shadow of God”. Nothing he suggested was to be neglected and whatever words came through his lips were accepted as orders. But they were also human beings. They were laughing, crying, feeling tired, and most importantly, feeling thirsty and hungry. Well, what did these people eat and drink when they got hungry and thirsty? Was the palace cuisine really all that fabulous?
From Middle Asia to Anatolia... Ottoman cuisine - or to be more correct, the Turkish cuisine - was influenced by many other cultures. As you know, the Turks, before they came to Anatolia, were a nomadic tribe. The nomads, predominantly feeding themselves with milk and meat, absorbed the cuisine tradition of other cultures, which they passed by, met, and fought with, until they finally came to Anatolia. Persians, Arabs, their neighbors the Chinese, and the Mediterranean culture all imparted some knowledge of how to eat well to the Turks. As the state was slowly became an empire, making many conquests, its cuisine culture developed: even their marriages made with foreign wives contributed to this development. All this accretion, after several centuries, would make up the cuisine of “Devlet-i Ali Osman”, which means the Ottoman Palace Cuisine, built in Topkapı Palace.
Sections of Palace Cuisine
It is not easy to explain the cuisine and dining tradition of a 623 years old history; it has so many details, you don’t know where to start. For instance, you cannot mention a Palace Cuisine until Murat II. After him, the traditions of nomadism start to change and the Ottoman taste in cuisine advances. Even though we just said that it was hard to know where to start, the flourishing of Ottoman cuisine came into its own during the reign of Murat II, whose son Mehmet the Conqueror founded Topkapı Palace, which transformed the Ottoman cuisine to Palace Cuisine.
Topkapı Palace was built between1475-1478 during the period of Fatih Sultan Mehmet. This palace was the permanent residence of the Ottoman Sultans for four centuries, and reached today with several additions and restorations.
Matbah- ı Amire
The Matbah-ı Amire, which means “the main kitchen” also called as “palace kitchen” was feeding the Sultan, his Harem, the grand viziers - in other words the entire Topkapı Palace - was located in the second backyard. Even today, when you enter the palace through the middle door, on the right of the regimental square, you can see the Matbah-ı Amire buildings. Consisting of 10 kitchens with 20 roofs for each, and taking a space of 5250 square meters, Matbah-ı Amire was cooking food to feed about 4000-5000 people. This number reached 10-15 thousand in the days when the Dewan (council of the state) would meet, during feasts or when the ulufe (janissary salaries) was to be given. In ceremony and ulufe days, this number rose, because in ulufe days, (the salary given to soldiers and other state workers every 3 months) it became a tradition to serve soup, rice and Zerde to the janissaries, waiting in the second backyard of the palace.
The Matbah-ı Amire, which can be entered through three doors opening to the second backyard, lower kitchen door, main kitchen door and peculiar kitchen door and halva house door, had two important sections. The kitchen where the palace habitants were served and Halvahane, Matbah-ı Amire mainly consisted of two sections, which were the bigger and the smaller kitchen. In the bigger kitchen, food for palace residents, dewan day dinners and feasts were cooked. This section fed 5000 people everyday, and it had four sections named Validesultan, Kızlarağası, Kapıağası and Kilercibaşı matbahı. When you passed through the Has Mutfak door, you would enter the main kitchen section with ovens and furnaces lying along the way. The kitchen had eight sections in total. Each section had separate ovens, separate furnaces and separate special cooks and their apprentices. In the 16th century, a special cook crew of 60 cooks and 200 apprentices, who consisted of dough cooks, sesame roll specialists, rice cooks, kebab cooks, aviary cooks, vegetable specialists and dessert specialists. A chief cook with higher grade was responsible for them. In the kitchen, ovens with diverse sizes, burning with blazes of wood or coal, chord boxes, tandoori, grill, maltese, galley, blowtorch were being used. Just next to the oven, fire rakes for picking up ashes and fire, clip for mixing, bakers peel for throwing fire to the grill, and trivet for cooking pots were to be found. Matbah-ı Hümayun “Matbah-ı Hümayun,Matbah-ı Has” or “Kuşhâne” known also as the small kitchen, was the section where special food for the Sultan was being cooked and which served the persons of rank school. In the 16th century, 17 chef cooks, 12 apprentices and one head cook were working in there. These cooks, coming on campaigns along with the Sultan, due to the possibility of poisoning of the Sultan, were chosen from extremely reliable people.
The last section of the kitchen was the Helvahâne, which was a building with four domes. In helvahâne, dessert sorts, jams, drinks like syrups and compote, paste and pickle were manufactured. According to records, 812 people were working in Helvahâne, under the custody of Helvacıbaşı (ser-helvaciyan).
What was being cooked at Matbah-ı Amire?
A wide range of dishes, from sour to sweet and from warm to cold were being prepared, but there are several examples that draw attention with their preparation and with ingredients. Dishes cooked with sugar, honey and dried fruits were prepared. For instance: pumpkin stuffing, of which some of the filling ingredients are red currant and sugar; Nızbaç, a meat dish with dried black grapes, nutmeat, gum mastic and rose water; Milky Kebab, with lamb meat boiled in milk, then cooked as a shish kebab with hot milk that was eaten with cinnamon; stuffed vine leaves with cherry, cantaloupe or apple stuffing with meat; and chicken with berries, apricot, honey and almond. What about dessert? All kinds of Halvas made in the Halvahane of Matbah-ı Amire, saffron and rice dessert, blancmange, Noah’s pudding, Terkib-i Çeşm-i Şir (lion eye halvas) and Helatiyes. At this point, we want to note that none of the food mentioned above includes tomatoes or green pepper. No potatoes, no corn… Shortly, the Sultans had to wait until Columbus discovered America. The Ottoman cuisine met tomatoes, oranges, peppers and beans in the 18th century and potatoes in the 19th century. Is Ottoman cuisine heavy? Some hold the opinion that Turkish cuisine is too fatty, spicy and heavy. Is it really? As we learned from the essay of Nil Sarı, titled “the regulation of Ottoman Palace Food according to seasons and the relation of its art of medicine to its era”, which appeared in “Turkish cuisine symposium declarations” published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, this is not true. In her essay, Sarı cites: “First of all, the Ottoman Palace nutrition tradition is not based upon one or few basic ingredients, and all the actual nourishment was consumed in a balanced manner. While meat, wheat, rice and plain butter have the main role in menus, the palace residents were able to consume other animal and herbal products in a balanced manner. Therefore the Ottoman cuisine culture presents a complex texture, combining eastern and western traditions. Another important feature of the cuisine culture of the palace is that it is based on a presupposition, which states that nutrition and health have a close relationship. This conception is based on traditional Islamic medicine, which the Ottomans used. According to that, the human body has four bodily fluids, which are blood, phlegm, bile and passion. When these fluids are balanced the body is healthy and when they are imbalanced, it becomes ill. One of the factors which determines the level and amount of these bodily fluids is food and drinks. Therefore it is needed to be a balanced diet, which can enable these fluids to remain balanced. If the situation becomes unbalanced, a diet has to be made and medicine has to be taken. Besides, these bodily fluids vary from season to season. Food has to be chosen, which will increase the amount of blood during spring and fall, and a decrease in bile in summer, phlegm in winter and passion in fall.
Key parts and secrets of Ottoman cuisine
Unlike common people, rice instead of cracked wheat, sugar instead of honey and grape molasses, white bread and yeast cake instead of brown bread and pastry were used in palace kitchen.
Compote and sorbet were drunk in palace dinners instead of water.
Sheep and lamb meat was preferred.
Bread was very important. Fine white bread, finest white bread, and regular bread were the bread categories and they were doled out regarding the hierarchy in the palace. The Sultan ate the finest bread.
The most favored vegetable was aubergine. It original came from China.
Beans, potatoes, turkey, cacao, corn, and some varieties of pumpkins arrived after America was discovered after the 15th century.
Gumbo had a special place in ottoman cuisine.
Halva made out of musk and rose water, flax halva, and halva with almonds were among the 7-8 types of halva being manufactured.
In the 19th century, cinnamon was used when cooking fish and meat.
Sour grape juice was a fixture of the kitchen.
Food cooked in pots was flavored with sour grape juice, lemon juice, dib roman, and of course with onions and diverse spices.
The food was always cooked with plain butter, which was butter without salt.
Tomatoes joined Ottoman cuisine towards the end of the 18th century. Afterwards it became the tomatoes of today through being grafted. The size of tomato early on was the size of a cherry. It was consumed when it was green. Stuffing, soup and marinated tomatoes were cooked. As the tomato turned red, it was thrown away.
Shish Kebab wasn’t cooked in iron skewers like it is cooked today. Bay tree stems and aubergine stalks were used instead. Along with the heat, their taste penetrates the meat too.
The meal of the Sultan was firstly tasted by the Çaşnıgirbaşı (flavor taster) then the Sultan would eat it. The food was served him in shallow frying pans.
The vine leaves stuffing that we know today were not stuffed in wine leaves, but in chestnut leaves, conker leaves, quince leaves and bean leaves.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who loved eating alone, liked shrimps, chicken and fish. Egg was the main food used in Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s meals. For instance egg was used in chicken grill, special porridge and pita with cheese. The meat eaten in Fatih’s Sultan dinner was sheep, chicken, goose, lamb’s feet and tripe. The most commonly used vegetables in the palace were leek, cabbage and spinach.
The favorite food of Sultan Abdülhamit II was fried eggs with onions. The Sultan rewarded whoever was able to cook fried egg with onions the best. It required great ability to cook fried egg with onions. Its preparation took about three and a half hours.
Sultan Abdülhamit liked plain food. His favorite food was yoghurt and çılbır (yoghurt with eggs).
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