Let’s take you to a time travel back to the 15th century… The location: İstanbul; the period: Ottomans. Let’s leave aside the victories, conquests, and defeats and talk about culture! What culture? The food culture! The Ottoman period palace kitchens with the Sultan’s table, dishes, cooks, eating habits, and kitchen tools, is a subject that awakens great curiosity.
İstanbul within İstanbul
The population of the Topkapı Palace was as high as to define this place as another town within İstanbul. The palace was not only the government center of the Ottoman State but also the center of education and arts, and home of the Sultan at the same time. The path through the heart of daily life was going through the kitchens. The palace kitchens could almost be called a neighborhood of the city that lined along the 170-meter long courtyard which is positioned facing the Marmara Sea. The kitchens located in the second courtyard of the palace were covering a 5250 square meters of land area including their annexes.
Baklava for the Janissaries
In the palace, meals were prepared every day for around 4-5 thousand people, including those who lived there and daily visitors. The teams of staff responsible for the kitchen were as follows: Birûn (the section excluding the harem and the Enderûn) and Enderûn (the place where harem and treasury offices are located and the school that educates state officials), members of the Divan-ı Hümayûn, the Janissaries, whose numbers reach about 15 thousand during the distribution of service pays every 3 months, ambassadors and the officials who attended receptions… Baklava was made for the Janissaries on the 15th night of Ramadan. There were those who cooked their own meals; some external service groups such as the Bab-ı Hümayûn caretakers were supplied from the cellar.
From Bursa to Egypt
In the palace, providing housing and job opportunities for 4-5 thousand people at the beginning of the 16th century and for about 10 thousand people at the beginning of the 17th century, besides the elite class to be fed, procurement of food was not a job to be underestimated. It was forbidden for others to procure food before the palace was done with the task. The priority was of the palace; quality goods were selected, but while this was being done, utmost care was given, so the people of the city would not suffer any scarcity. We can obtain information about the purchase of goods from İstanbul and the provinces looking at the books kept for kitchen expenses. Fast moving consumer goods and some other nutrients were provided from İstanbul and basic nutrients were provided from the provinces. The so-called provinces were actually very large geography. Wheat was brought from Bursa, the Southern Marmara, and from the plains that are located within the borders of Greece today; sheep from Moldavia and Wallachia and the Balkans; rice from Egypt and Plovdiv; butter from Kefe; sugar from Egypt and Cyprus by land and sea routes.
Central Asia, migration, and Anatolia
“Palace Kitchens- Matbah-i Amire” catalog of the Topkapı Palace Museum provides the following information: “Ottoman palace cuisine is the whole of a culture that was brought from Central Asia, developed during migration and enriched in Anatolia. Sheep meat was eaten in the palace the most, and the beef was used only in the making of pastrami and sausage making. A large number of chickens were consumed as white meat. Executive members of the court also used to eat poultry such as geese, ducks, pigeons, and partridges. All kinds of meat were used in stews; poultry such as chicken and duck were spit-roasted.The meat was also added in soups and vegetable dishes. Specialty meat and fish were also consumed a lot. Meat and meat dishes, as well as vegetable dishes, were cooked. A meat dish, soup, and rice were the indispensable dishes of the kitchen. In stews, fruits such as plums, apples, and grapes were used; they were flavored with spices. Both honey and vinegar were used in some of the dishes; usually, lard and clarified butter were used.
Hierarchy in the kitchen
The number of staff working in palace kitchens, where service was provided for 400 years, was constantly increasing depending on the palace population. The number of personnel, which used to be 100 in the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror’s period (1451-1481), had reached 250 at the beginning of the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566); and 500 at the end of his reign; 1000 at the end of the 16th century; and it was around 1300 in the mid-17th century. The kitchens located at the second courtyard were reached through three doors: Kiler-i Âmire Gate, Has Mutfak (Sultan’s private kitchen) Gate and Helvahane Gate. The kitchens were named after the hierarchy. Has Mutfak was serving to sultans, their wives, and daughters. The chefs working in the palace kitchens were three classes: master, assistant master, apprentice. The chef who was responsible for preparing the food of the Sultan was the head of all the chefs and was also responsible for the management of the kitchen staff. He was also dealing with the checks and controls of the prepared meals, the distribution of salaries and clothing for the staff, and the protection of kitchen and tableware.
According to the law of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, which determined the order of the palace and state, which was the first solid law of the Ottoman Empire, the sultans ate their meals alone. Although there were gold and silver dishes in the palace, the sultans preferred porcelain pots. In the classical period, the most commonly used bowls by the dynasty and senior officials in the palace were Chinese porcelain. Especially the celadon bowls produced in China are found in the Ottoman documents; they were preferred with the belief that they revealed poison. Copper and tombac objects were also important. When the Sultan ate food in the Has Oda (Sultan’s private chamber), the person responsible for each step was the head cellarer. His duties included the delivery of the meals from the Has Mutfak, setting up the dinner table, opening the dome dish cover and serving of the dishes. His coffee was served by the head armorer; his sherbet was served by the head footman. The ranks that came after the head cellarer were as follows: head napkin keeper was the keeper of the Sultan’s bread, mumbaşı was the keeper of the Sultan’s water, peşkirşakir was washing the tray and spoons, tray keeper, fruit keeper, pickle keeper. Before and after the meal, the head pitcher keeper, who poured water so the Sultan washed his hands, and the head napkin keeper, who wiped his hands, were of the Has Oda.
Magnificence of receptions and the state
There wouldn’t be a day when smoke from the palace kitchens did not billow. Every day, dinner was cooked for the sultan, mother sultan, princes, princesses, wives, and concubines. There was also a small kitchen in the harem. In this kitchen, which is called Sultan Kitchen or Kuşhane Kitchen (which means small plate and bowl), the sultan and the high-ranking dynasty members were served on special days and nights. When a sultan was traveling on horseback, the Kuşhane Kitchen would travel with him. Receptions at the palace were plenty in numbers of course. The most sumptuous meals were banquets given in Divan-i Hümâyûn in the second courtyard. The effect of the days, when the distribution of payments for the Janissaries made four times a year, was long-lasting. At these special events, the goal was to show the power and richness of the Ottoman Empire to the foreign ambassadors, invited to the palace, through the objects such as tableware used in the banquets given in Kubbealtı and the number of meals, reaching to a hundred. Sherbet was drunk during the meals; incense was burned after the meal; rose water was worn.