Istanbul’s cuisine has a special place in both Turkish and world cuisine, with roots going back to ancient Greece and Rome. Following the Turkish conquest, the traditional foodways of the Ottoman sultans and the culinary cultures of the many ethnic communities of the city added new dimensions to its cuisine. As a city straddling the Bosphorus, Istanbul has an abundance of fish and seafood, and where the cooking of these is concerned, Christian and Jewish tradition have been more important than the Muslim.

Meat In Ottoman Cusine

Not only was fish consumed fresh, but also preserved in various ways, by salting, smoking and drying. Meat played an important role in Ottoman cuisine, particularly mutton and lamb, beef being used largely for curing as pastýrma. Soups made with meat and chicken stock were often thickened with bulgur and noodles. Rice became widely used from the second half of the 16th century in particular, and pilaf began to be served with roasted and stewed meat dishes of many kinds.

Pilaf itself came in many varieties, cooked with ingredients such as tomatoes, almonds, pistachio nuts, currants, aubergines, and chicken. That versatile vegetable aubergine featured in scores of different dishes, and in summer sparks from fires on which aubergines were being grilled were a frequent cause of fires that destroyed wooden houses. Desserts came in innumerable kinds, the main categories being sweet pastries, of which the king was baklava, and puddings made of milk or fruit respectively.

House Wives For Special Occasions

Baklava was made at home by housewives for special occasions and sent to be baked at the local bakery. Of the milk puddings, keþkül made with ground almonds and ground rice was served first at meals for guests. On winter evenings gatherings known as ‘helva parties’ were held, at which the entertainment consisted of music, singing, and games, after which the guests were served helva made with flour or semolina, pickles and afterwards coffee.

One of the earliest accounts of Ottoman palace cuisine, dating before the conquest, is that of Bertrandon de la Broquiere, who was a guest at a banquet given for the Milanese ambassador by Sultan Murad II (1421-1451). I quote from Sula Bozis’s Istanbul Lezzeti: ‘Pilaf with mutton was the main dish. A red leather table cloth was placed in front of the sultan, and over that a silk cloth. The sultan used a silk napkin and was served his food in gold dishes.

Pilaf With Chickpeas Famous Dish

One of the most famous dishes of court cuisine was pilaf with chickpeas containing one gold chickpea, which was kept by the guest who found it.’ The main elements of the Ottoman mosaic, Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Greeks, lived together in Istanbul for centuries, and the cuisine reflects the traditions of all these cultures. The dish known as priet’se stew is one such example. Made with wine by Christians and with vinegar by Muslims, this famous dish is shared by Greek, Armenians, Georgian and Ottoman cuisines. Russian salad, which was invented for the czar of Russia by a French chef called Olivier became popular among the Greeks of Istanbul in particular.

The Sephardic Jewish cuisine was characterised by extensive use of fish, vegetables and olive oil, some of which dishes were adopted by other communities, while others, such as leek rissoles and börek filled with aubergine, remained specifically Jewish. The rockling fish was a favourite both with the Jews of Istanbul, who cooked it with sour plums, and with Sultan Abdülhamid II, who enjoyed it fried in butter. Herise, the national dish of the Armenians, is known as keþkek in Anatolia.

Another famous Armenian dish is topik, which originated as a Lenten food. Stuffed vineleaves, mussels and mackerel were all enjoyed by Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Stuffed mackerel was known as Forget Me Not, and the stuffing consisted of a large quantity of onions with less rice. Another renowned Armenian dish was stuffed spleen.

Much more could be said about Istanbul cuisine, which is so vast in extent that researchers are constantly discovering new details, but I hope that this brief glimpse gives an idea of its extraordinary and exciting diversity.

The new Istanbul Cuisine

Istanbul cuisine is, in a sense, an imperial cuisine. Bearing traces of widely divergent cultures from the Adriatic to the Middle East, from the Caucasus to North Africa, Istanbul cuisine underwent a transformation with the First World War. One of the most significant consequences of this sweeping urban economic and demographic transformation was the breakdown of a lifestyle catering to the refined tastes of the elite class. The void was filled by the popular habits and culture of the existing Istanbul people, who came from various regions in Anatolia.

Anatolia Comes to Istanbul

Up to the 1950s Istanbul cuisine consisted basically of a limited variety of dishes going back to palace cooking and the ‘new and economical’ dishes invented during the years of privation. One of the most significant consequences of the economically motivated mass migration from Anatolia to Istanbul that began in the 1950s was the appearance in the city of foodstuffs from the rural sector. Limited at first to what the migrants prepared in their own homes, these local Anatolian flavors were later introduced to Istanbulites by the restaurants that were starting to open on a small scale, the first examples perhaps being the makers of ‘lahmacun’ or Turkish-style pizza. During the 1990s, Istanbulites developed an increasing interest in Anatolian cuisine, which they got to know first through southern and southeastern Turkish cooking and later through Black Sea cuisine. Although the number of restaurants devoted to the latter remains small, Istanbulites today have made the acquaintance of black cabbage, pickled green bean ragout, ‘mihlama’, anchovy bread, cream corn soup and many other anchovy dishes as well as a variety of baklava made by the Laz people of the Black Sea.

firmly attached to their native cuisines. This is probably best appreciated at the Kastamonu markets set up weekly in Kasimpasa and Balat, where all the region’s natural products can be found, from greens like spinach and borage to dairy products like yoghurt and ‘kaymak’ or thick Turkish cream, not to mention ‘tarhana’ and bulghur. The countless new tastes I encounter at this market, which I’ve frequented for years, offer a special bonus every Sunday. And because every merchant in the market can give you several different recipes for each product he sells, you will soon become knowledgeable about the food culture of the various regions. I personally believe that the use of these newly discovered herbs together with what we already know is going to give rise to a new synthesis in Istanbul cuisine.

This synthesis reminds me of the revolution that was experienced in French cuisine when the populism that developed following the French revolution unleashed a flood of people from the French rural sector into Paris, where the two cultures merged to produce the rich French cuisine. Mastering the fine points of the restaurant business, these chefs, who later returned to their native regions and opened high-quality establishments that drew visitors to the locale, marketed their regional cuisines in the best possible way. The same process is going to take place here in Turkey, albeit slowly. If local governments and non-governmental organizations like Tema, a foundation dedicated to fighting erosion, and the Association in Support of Contemporary Living support such efforts, it should not be at all difficult to achieve this goal.

Herbs are the Things

And of course there are the famous herbal dishes of the Aegean region and its legendary olive oils. Many wild herbs from golden thistle to foxtail rapidly gained respect and were quick to appear on Istanbul menus. The Anatolian people who have settled in Istanbul remain.

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