The essence of Turkey

The essence of Turkey

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
16 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

On our last day in Istanbul, we walked across the Galata Bridge from Beyoglu to Sultanahmet. Things were exactly the same as they’d been a few weeks before, except then there had been a chill wind blowing off the Bosphorus and the March drizzle had smudged the spires and domes of the Old City skyline into a soft grey monochrome. Now the weather was warmer, tulips were blooming and the scent of spring was in the air.

Pushing our way through the jostling crowds around the Eminönü ferry terminal, we headed west to trudge up the hill towards the Topkapı Palace. We wandered along a street named Sogukçesme Sokak, with its quaint old wooden houses built right up against the palace walls, until we found ourselves outside the Imperial Gate.

The residence of the Ottoman sultans for four centuries, the Topkapı Palace is perfectly situated on the top of a hilly wooded promontory at Seraglio Point. There were monasteries and public buildings on this site in Byzantium times, but the massive complex of pavilions and gardens that occupy the site today was built by Sultan Mehmet II after his dramatic conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

The beauty and scale of Topkapı unfolds in a series of linked courtyards, and as we passed through a succession of lush gardens, ornately vaulted stone chambers and exquisitely tiled pavilions it was easy to believe that at its peak this place was more a miniature city than a royal residence.

The administrative heart of the entire Ottoman Empire was gathered here at the palace; government and cabinet ministers, foreign ambassadors and the elite military corps known as the Janissaries all lived here, side by side with the sultan and his harem. When the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its power, the kitchens fed an average of 5000 people every day. On feast days and other special occasions this number could easily double – you can only wonder what the food bills would have been like.

It was a lot of mouths to feed and, from the very beginning, food was of prime importance to palace life. When he built the Topkapı, Mehmet II included a huge four-domed kitchen, and over successive centuries this was gradually extended to form the complex that remains today. As we discovered, beneath the distinctive twin rows of domes and chimneys was a whole little world in its own right: the kitchen complex was not just where cooking was done, but it also housed pantries and storerooms, administrative offices, sleeping quarters for kitchen staff, a mosque and a bathhouse.

The palace kitchens were manned by a brigade of highly specialised staff. At its largest, there was a team of almost 1400 cooks and assistants, including pilav chefs, baklava chefs, köfte makers and kebab chefs, bakers, confectioners and pickle makers, to name but a few. And in the way that chefs in today’s finest restaurants devote a lot of their time to reading magazines and cookbooks from countries all around the world, the chefs of Topkapı Palace did the same in their day, borrowing ideas from far-flung lands and adapting and reinventing them for the sultan’s pleasure.

Of course, the palace cooks were lucky. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, so did their repertoire. Not only was Constantinople itself a vast food market, with new and exotic foodstuffs coming in every day from all corners of the empire and beyond, but the growth of the empire led to a continuous exchange and cross-fertilisation of culinary ideas and recipes across its lands and peoples, providing plenty of inspiration for the chefs.

By the time of Suleiman the Magnificent – the Empire’s golden age – cooking had been elevated to an art, and food was celebrated in song, poetry and exquisitely painted miniatures. Chefs competed to create ever-greater culinary masterpieces and foreign visitors to the court returned home to tell tales of lavish banquets, where 300 or more dishes were eaten on floors spread with richly embroidered cloths against a backdrop of tinkling fountains and music in the air.

Relics of this devotion to the pleasures of the table are still on display. In the kitchens we inspected pots and pans, kettles and cauldrons and all sorts of other cooking paraphernalia, as well as a vast collection of Chinese porcelain. Other rooms housed displays of the more delicate trappings of this elite lifestyle; we gazed, awestruck, at dishes from Iznik painted with tulips, carnations and pomegranates; delicately engraved pudding spoons and jewelled carafes.

We wandered happily around the buildings and gardens, making our way towards the far end of the palace grounds to a broad terrace overlooking the water. We stood for a while in the warm sunshine gazing out to where the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara meet, and then over to the Asian shore in the distance.

We had one more mission before our Turkish journey came to an end. Clambering off a busy tram back at the Eminönü waterfront, we headed for the Spice Bazaar. We cut through the imposing Yeni Mosque, emerging on the other side to the ablution fountain where we looked across to the rooftops of the Spice Bazaar, domed like some strange metal egg-carton. In the chambers above the imposing gatehouse entry were the windows of the famous Pandeli restaurant, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the city. But, for now, we walked inside the bazaar to see where the palace cooks did their shopping.

Little has changed in Mısır Çarsısı – the ‘Egyptian’ Spice Bazaar – since it was built in the early seventeenth century. Now, as then, along its cavernous, dimly lit walkways you could find spices from the Orient, caviar and tea from the Black Sea, olives from Greece and exotic fragrant oils from Arabia. We squeezed our way up and down the crowded walkways and it was as if we were reliving our entire Turkish journey of the last five weeks. At one stall we found olive oil from Ayvalık, at another there was tulum cheese in a traditional goatskin sack and bright-red smelly pastırma from Kayseri, while around the corner, we spotted Aleppo pepper flakes, pistachio coffee and tarhana from Gaziantep.

Produce from all around the country was available – dried apricots from Malatya, golden raisins from I.zmir, wild greens from the Aegean coast, fish from the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean. There were great dark oozing blocks of honeycomb, buckets of creamy yoghurt, sackfuls of bulgur wheat, necklaces of tiny dried okra, and mounded displays of nuts, fruits and sweetmeats as far as the eye could see. All this great Anatolian abundance was on display right here in the heart of Istanbul.

Emerging into the sunshine, we found that the narrow streets outside the Spice Bazaar were chaotic. It was just an ordinary weekday, but it seemed as if the entire population of the city was here doing business or their daily shopping. We pushed our way through the heaving crowds of shoppers – past the simit sellers with their trolleys of bread, past stalls offering pomegranate juice or a glass of hot sahlep, past eager young Turks keen to sell us plastic dolma-rollers and gypsy women offering bunches of luridly tinted carnations – and ducked into a small tea house to catch our breath.

The noise of the crowd faded away and we sat for a moment in silence, our conversation stilled by a sudden sense of melancholy. Although unvoiced, I was sure that we shared the same thought: ‘It’s too soon to leave this place.’ I pulled out my notebook and flicked back through the pages; five weeks’ worth of scribblings rose up from the pages in a tangle of disjointed words, phrases and expressions. Every meal we’d eaten had its own story – in the names of the new friends we’d made, the restaurants visited, the ingredients discovered, the dishes tasted. It is true that the purpose of our journey had been about the small, simple things of daily life … about food and eating and cooking. But the real joy had been in the way these small things revealed this country’s history and the lives of its people.

I glanced down at my notebook again, at the jottings of quotes and notes of conversations we’d had, and memories and faces came flooding back. In my mind’s eye I could see Talat Çagdas ladling hot sugar syrup over a tray of golden baklava; Musa Dagdeviren talking animatedly of his passion for Anatolian peasant food; Filiz and The Fish Doctor, and Hüsna Baba with his sea urchins; Emine with her enchanting smile and Sedat pouring us yet another glass of rakı. All these people, and many more, had shared their passions, had helped and taught us, had fed and hugged us and had shown us their Turkey. Our journey had certainly been a celebration of food, but what would the food be without the people?

A moment later, a waiter appeared, setting down on the table in front of us pretty little tulip-shaped glasses of strong, sweet tea. As we thanked him, he smiled and asked the same question that we’d been asked so many times over the last few weeks: ‘Where you from? You spik Ingleez? You like Turkey?’ We smiled back and assured him that, yes, we did like Turkey very much indeed.

Coffee and coffee houses

Europeans have the Ottomans to thank for introducing them to coffee. Originating in Ethiopia, the wild coffee arabica bush is believed to have been cultivated by African tribesmen from the sixth century AD, who enjoyed it for its stimulating properties, rather in the same way that we enjoy it today. From Ethiopia, the use of coffee spread over the Red Sea to Yemen, and then its popularity swept rapidly through Arabia.

By the sixteenth century, the consumption of coffee had become fashionable in Mecca, Damascus and Constantinople, where the first true coffee house was established in 1554. Despite efforts by the pious to ban it because of concerns about its mind-altering properties, coffee drinking spread like wildfire. Within a few decades, Constantinople was full of coffee houses and by the end of the sixteenth century there were reputedly more than 600 coffee houses in the city alone.

The pleasure of coffee was embraced by the Ottoman Empire. By 1700 AD there were coffee houses as far afield as Venice and Marseilles. In 1669, Sultan Mehmet IV sent an emissary to the courts of Louis XIV to woo the palace with various Ottoman delights: coffee was served from delicate long-spouted ewers, ladies’ hands were sprinkled with rosewater and all manner of sweetmeats were served. Subsequently, coffee was spruiked around the country by wandering coffee vendors sporting traditional Turkish costume as a mark of their trade.

Vienna’s love affair with coffee dates from the Ottoman siege of the city in 1683, when retreating Turkish armies reputedly left behind sacks of coffee beans that they’d brought with them. An enterprising Pole, Franz Kolschitsky, who was familiar with coffee having once served as an interpreter in the Ottoman army, prepared the beans in the traditional manner and thus introduced the Viennese to the delights of drinking coffee.

It’s not hard to see why coffee was such an instant hit, especially in Muslim countries where alcohol was prohibited. In fact, the English word coffee comes from the Turkish kahveh, which comes from the old Arabic word for wine – kawhah.

Coffee houses have largely always been men’s domain. The earliest coffee houses were often constructed as pavilions, and, as is the case with fancy restaurants today, the most favoured were the ones with a good view of the city, the Golden Horn or the Bosphorus. Customers reclined upon low benches and smoked fragrant tobacco – sometimes opium – through slender water pipes. Entertainment was provided and they generally operated as a kind of gentleman’s club, where men would while away the hours chatting or reading the daily newspapers. Over time, coffee houses became inextricably linked with prayer. Often sited next to mosques, these two institutions were generally the main places for social gathering in a village or town.

Today coffee houses – kahve – tend to be rather down-at-heel, dingy places, and they continue to be more often frequented by men than by women or family groups. Inside you’ll find little groups of men playing cards or backgammon and smoking endlessly. And despite the name and the long history, the drink of choice in coffee houses these days tends to be tea!

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