Sampling Ottoman Food in Istanbul

The Ottoman Empire was one of the great empires of the world. It stretched three continents, and has shaped the culture of a swathe of humanity that persists even till today. The rule of the Sultan stretched from Algiers to Bagdad, from Mecca to Budapest, from Jerusalem to Istanbul.

The rule of the Ottoman Empire could be described as one of great enlightenment since many people of different faiths and religions were lived peacefully and were allowed to rise to the top, this was a time when crusades were still being called over in Europe.

As would be expected from an empire of its influence and size, they developed a cuisine that was distinctive and influenced the cuisine of Balkans, Caucasus and the Aegean. Food and cuisine is a subject of academic research and according to researchers Ottoman Cuisine takes many influences from Persian cuisine, but is also influenced by Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine traditions. Ottoman cuisine was an imperial cuisine, dishes were created in the imperial kitchen in Topkapi Palace and then later filtered to the public. The dishes were thought to be one that was full of creativity, as chefs from all over the empire brought their ingredients and inspirations to Constantinople and experimented with new dishes.

I used the word filtered because it describes exactly how Ottoman recipes got out to the public, these recipes were a closely guarded secret and would have to be recreated from memory by chefs. So when the Ottoman Empire eventually collapsed, much of the culinary heritage of the Ottoman Empire was lost.

There is one place that focuses on rediscovering Ottoman cuisine and then recreating them. As described on their website, Asitane Restaurant “has been bringing the forgotten tastes to the present with its summer and winter menus offered by adding more than 200 historical receipts to its archive and using numerous original sources such as dinner and dessert expenditure records of Topkapı, Dolmabahçe and Edirne Palace; record books of important feasts; books written by foreign government officers and people from various occupational groups; documents from Libraries of Beyazıt and Millet in Istanbul; a work dated November, 1539 and named “A Feast Book” belonging to the circumcision feast of Suleiman the Magnificents’ sons Beyazıd and Cihangir in Palace of Edirne; literary texts of festivals; and old Ottoman dictionaries.”

Since it was located next to the Chora Church, we made a booking to try it out.

The first thing that struck me about these dishes, all of which come from traditional recipes was this – naturally sweet. Every dish even if it was meant to be savoury had a tinge of sweetness to it.

Whether it was Almond Soup (Badem Corbasi), which was sweet becuase of the almonds,

or Mahmuddiyye, a traditional chicken stew flavoured with sweet raisins.

From sea bass stuff with cinnamon and other spices (Levrek Buryan),

to stuffed melon (meat stuffed inside a melon, Kavun dolmasi),

not to mention the a rice pudding dessert (sudlu zerde),

it was all sweet. The only dish that did not taste too sweet was a stuffed calamari with shrimp (Karidesli kalmar Dolmasi), although you could argue that the shrimp itself was naturally sweet too.

Apart from sweetness and a duality of flavours, another stand out to me about Ottoman cuisine was a playing with texture. Almond soup that was sweet but a little grainy texture in it, stuffed melon with soft meat but slightly harder melon meat, dessert with the creamy and porridge-y rice texture.

Much of this cuisine felt different from the common-man cuisine that we had throughout the rest of the trip in Istanbul, it was interesting but not something that I’d have on a regular. I have a common man’s palate, what can I say. More on that the next few days!


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