A Mirror of Society: Cuisine
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A Mirror of Society: Cuisine

Priscilla Mary Işın

Cuisines are mirrors reflecting the history of a society in all its aspects, whether cultural, spiritual, economic or political. At the same time every contact and interchange with other societies imprints a culinary mark. In this respect the Turkish cuisine is a mirror of particular diversity, since over the past two thousand years of their history the Turks have spread westwards from their homeland in northeastern Asia into Anatolia and Europe, bringing them into contact with peoples across both continents and forging affinities with foodways as far apart as China and Austria. Moreover through trade and other indirect contacts Turkish cuisine has both influenced and been influenced by countries with which it never shared a frontier.

From East to West

Turkish cuisine is rooted in a pastoral diet of meat and dairy foods, but at an early stage depended heavily on grain crops. The eleventh century Turkish dictionary Divanü Lûgat-it-Türk by Mahmud of Kashgar, a scholar and linguist from the Karakhanid state in Central Asia, lists native Turkish words for sowing, the plough, grains, and many grain foods, including noodles, breads and pastries. Charles Perry, scholar of Near Eastern languages and food historian, comments that the presence of these words in non-Turkish languages attests to the influence of Turkish grain cookery as far afield as Hungary and North Africa. Mahmud relates an ancient Turkish legend regarding the noodle dish tutmaç, which is still made in some regions of Turkey today, and although the legend is probably not grounded in fact, it does serve as a reminder that links between Europe and Asia are nothing new: Turkish mercenaries fighting for Alexander the Great became weary of war and desired to go back home, asking Alexander to allow them a last meal before setting off on their long journey, with the words 'Bizi tutma aç' (Let us not go hungry). The dish prepared for them thus became known as tutmaç.

A 14th century dietary manual thought to have been written by an Uighur Turk and presented to the Mongol emperor of China reflects the mosaic of not only Turkic, Mongolian and Chinese foodways, but those of the western Asian Muslim world. The wide diversity of of Kubilay Khan's court cuisine echoed that of Arab and Turkish rulers in western Asia. According to Anderson and Buell, 'Seljuq and Mamluk Turks, like the Umayyads and Abbasids before them, although remaining true to older indigenous traditions, encouraged the development of cosmopolitan court cultures. They included uniform traditions of cuisine which the Turks spread throughout the Middle East.'

Tradition and Innovation

The Turks who migrated into Anatolia in the 11th century brought with them such ancient staples of Turkish cuisine as yogurt and paper thin pastry. When the Frenchman Broquière travelled with a caravan across Turkey from Antakya to Edirne, then the Ottoman capital, in 1432, he was offered these foods at a Turcoman encampment:

'We halted among them; they placed before us one of the table-cloths before-mentioned, in which there remained fragments of bread, cheese, and grapes. They then brought us a dozen of thin cakes of bread, with a large jug of curdled milk, called by them yogurt. The cakes are a foot broad, round, and thinner than wafers; they fold them up as grocers do their papers for spices, and eat them filled with the curdled milk.'


As the Ottomans advanced westwards they continued the work of spreading plants and foodways into Europe via the Balkans, as the Arabs had done earlier via Spain. The Hungarian historian Sandor Takats (1860-1932) describes how in the 16th century the Turks introduced many varieties of fruit, flowers and herbs into Hungary, cultivating vegetable gardens and orchards wherever they settled. After the recapture of the Hungarian town of Fülek, the Turkish gardens were found to be so numerous that even after distributing one to each soldier many still remained unclaimed. As a result Hungary became the intermediary for the introduction of many new varieties of fruit and flowers into western Europe.

During this period new foods discovered in America began to make an impact on the cuisines of the Old World. Some of these made their way directly from Spain into Ottoman Turkey, before they found their way to the rest of Europe. Historian Bert Fragner writes, 'Tomatoes, sunflowers, Indian corn, paprikas and chillis, not forgetting the amazing turkey, found their way within an astonishingly short time via Spain straight to the areas of the Ottoman Empire along the eastern Mediterranean shores, arriving in Italy only some decades later.'

The way a Mexican bird came to be known throughout the English-speaking world as the 'turkey' is indeed amazing. The Spanish were naturally aware of the origin of this American bird, calling it Indian chicken, a name that the Ottomans adopted in Turkish translation and passed on to the Austrians who abbreviated the name to 'Indian'. However, by the time the strange new bird appeared in England no memory of its American origin attached to it. Instead it had acquired an association with Turkey, long a source of exotics and an important English trading partner. So in English the bird became known as the Turkey cock. Abbreviated to turkey, the name, and possibly European descendants of the bird itself, were carried back across the Atlantic. America's most celebrated native bird is thus named after Turkey, in an indelible tribute to the role played by this country in western culinary culture.

In these days of mass communications it is hard to imagine such confusion over origin, but in the past it was frequently the case that commodities were thought to come from places that were merely intermediaries in their trade or dissemination. Thus sweet oranges are still known as portakal (i.e. 'Portugal') in Turkey, since it was via Portugal that this species of orange spread to Turkey. Similarly maize is known in Turkish as mısır ('Egypt'), while in English this grain was known as Turkish wheat until the 19th century, in French as blé de Turquie and by equivalent designations in Germany, Holland, Russia, and Italy. The botanist Ruellius first cited the name Frumentum turcicum in 1536. The supposed Turkish origin of maize was therefore entrenched within a few decades of the arrival of maize from America, and it was via Ottoman lands that this American plant spread into most of Europe. The beans found in America were called 'Turkish beans' by the first Dutch and Swedish writers on America', since Turkey and the Middle East were a source of many varieties of beans, which featured largely in the cookery of the region.

The Ottoman Empire, with its own fertile lands and wide trading links with China, India, Africa and Europe, was a source of spices and foods commonplace in supermarkets everywhere today, but which just a few centuries ago were exotic luxuries. As late as 1676 dried figs were still such a rarity in England that even the king could not obtain enough for his needs. Charles II commanded Sir John Finch, ambassador to the court of Sultan Mehmed IV, to secure a regular supply of this fruit, and as a result of negotiations in Istanbul it was stipulated in a trade agreement between England and Turkey that two shiploads of figs should be allowed to be exported annually from Izmir for the use of the king's kitchen.

Examples of Ottoman culinary influence on western cuisine abound. Pastrami, the Turkish pastırma (cured pressed beef whose name means 'causing to be pressed'), found its way into western cuisine, as did salep, a hot drink made from orchid root, that was once widely sold on the streets of French and English cities. Puff pastry, which originated in Iran and early became a feature of Arab cuisine, was carried on the one hand by the Arabs into Spain and several centuries later reintroduced by the Turks via Vienna, where it was transformed into croissants and Danish pastries. The paper thin rolled pastry which was an ancient characteristic of Turkish cuisine and had been observed by Broquière in the 15th century became the strudel pastry of central Europe. This pastry was the basis of countless savoury and sweet Turkish dishes, of which baklava was the jewel in the crown. Making baklava so delicate that a coin dropped from a height would penetrate the eighty or so diaphanous layers to strike the tray beneath was one of the tests Turkish cooks had to pass to be promoted to master's rank.

An Institution is Born

Coffee is probably the most renowned of all Turkish influences. Coffee drinking began with the Arabs, passed to the Turks, and the first coffee house opened in Istanbul in 1553. The offering of coffee to guests took on a ritual significance in Turkish etiquette, and among the upper classes complex formalities attended its serving in porcelain cups and richly jewelled holders. One of the earliest European travellers to Turkey to mention coffee was George Sandys, who around 1610 wrote:

'Although they be destitute of Taverns, yet have they their Coffa-houses, which something resembles them. There sit they chatting most of the day, and sip of a drink called Coffa (of the berry that it is made of) in little China dishes: as hot as they can suffer it: black as soot, and tasting not much unlike it.'

These first unfavourable impressions of coffee quickly changed. The Dutch first shipped coffee beans to Europe in 1637, and the first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford in 1650 by a Turkish Jew named Jacob. According to a probably apocryphal story, the Viennese caught the coffee drinking habit later in 1683, when the retreating Turkish army left sacks of coffee beans behind after the siege of Vienna. Although coffee had been known in France earlier, its rise to the height of fashion at the court of Versailles dates from the Turkish ambassador Süleyman Ağa's visit to Paris in 1688-1689. He introduced his French guests to coffee drinking in the magnificent style of the Turkish court, servants on bended knee presenting them with coffee in cups of egg-shell porcelain in holders of gold and silver, set on embroidered silk doylies fringed with gold. So fashionable did it become that in the 18th century Louis XV liked to brew his own coffee, and a portrait of his mistress Mme de Pompadour depicts her in Turkish costume sipping coffee and holding a Turkish pipe. Just as the hamam or Turkish bath became fashionable in London, where they were known as hummums, so did the Turkish style coffee house. These became a lasting social institution, evolving into the clubs for English gentlemen.

Strange twists of fate have carried Turkish dishes in unexpected directions. When King Charles XII of Sweden was defeated by Peter the Great in 1709, he fled to Turkey hoping to persuade the sultan to lend him military support against Russia. These hopes did not materialise, but meanwhile he and a large retinue remained in exile in Turkey until 1714. During these five years the king ran up such huge debts that he was followed home to Sweden by his Turkish creditors, along with their cooks, and remained there until 1732. The result was dolmades, the Swedish version of Turkish stuffed vegetables known as dolma.

Sweet Symbolism

Confectionery was an area in which East had influenced West for many centuries. Sweetmeats and sweet pastries played an important symbolic role in Turkish social life, representing goodwill and happiness at ceremonies on special occasions like marriage and births, and at religious festivals. The three day feast following Ramazan is known in Turkey as the Sugar Feast, and every family gets in a supply of boiled sweets, Turkish delight, sugared almonds and other sweetmeats to offer guests. During Ottoman times Istanbul was the empire's confectionery centre, where the art continued to evolve new variations on old themes, the example par excellence being Turkish delight (rahatü'l-hulkum) that developed in the 18th century from the starch pudding pelte. Sweetmeats that found their way from Turkey to Europe during the Ottoman period include sherbet candy (sert şerbet) and fondant (lohuk or çevirme). Fondant was the first soft sugar confection known in Europe, introduced in the mid-19th century by Friedrich Unger, chief confectioner to King Otto I of Greece, who travelled to Istanbul to study Turkish confectionery in 1835. Unlike Turkish delight, fondant was simple to make. 'The reader will find,' explains Unger in his book on oriental confectionery published in 1837, 'that when he understands some of the preparations, he will be able to make all kinds of lohuk scherbet with the greatest of ease.' This was quite true, and within two decades fondant was all the rage in France and had soon spread to England. Turkish delight, on the other hand, consistently foiled European attempts at imitatation. In 1903 the French artist Pretextat-Lecomte observed that while the ingredients of Turkish delight were simple, the technical skill involved proved an insurmountable obstacle.

Meanwhile the Turks enjoyed the confectionery specialities of Europe, particularly Italy. In the mid-17th century the Turkish writer Evliya Çelebi mentions European confectioners' shops in Istanbul, and exports of sweetmeats from Venice are recorded in the 18th century. In the early 19th century Italian and Swiss settlers were producing candied fruits in the district of Galata.

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