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

Looking West

Western cultural influences on Ottoman Turkey began to make an increasingly strong impact during the 18th century, first in the area of garden landscaping, architecture and the decorative arts, followed later by music and cuisine. Macaroni was being imported from Italy by 1780. Pasta itself was not a stranger to traditional Turkish cuisine, which had its own diverse range of noodles, but the mass production of macaroni in Italy turned it into a trade commodity. In the 1830s the Ottoman government set up its own macaroni factory to supply the army, the machinery presumably being imported from Italy. This factory was located in Istanbul at Selimiye Barracks, where Florence Nightingale ran the British Hospital during the Crimean War.

Westernisation of Turkish eating habits was at first manifested in the outward trappings of the table. European travellers to Turkey had always had trouble with sitting with their legs tucked under them, this unaccustomed posture giving them cramp. Offering a chair to European dignities as a gesture of politeness at state ceremonies, though not yet at table, is recorded as far back as the 17th century. European style dining tables, chairs and cutlery began to appear in the latter half of the 18th century, as the adoption of European manners became fashionable among the wealthier classes. An early account by the Frenchman Baron de Tott describes a meal with an Ottoman Greek family some time before 1780:

'We sat down to dinner, which was served up after the French manner, on a circuar table, with chairs set round it, spoons, forks etc and nothing wanting but to know how to make use of all these things.  They seemed nevertheless to be desirous not to omit any of our customs, which begin to be in the same vogue among the Greeks, which those of the English are with us: and I have seen a woman, at dinner, take olives up with her fingers, and afterwards put them on a fork, to eat them after the French fashion.'

Several decades on it was still the appurtenances of the table rather than the food that marked the host's inclination for western fashions. In 1831 the American naval physician Commodore de Kay was invited to dinner with the Ottoman naval commander of the port, and 'found the dinner served up in as handsome style as it has ever been our lot to witness in Europe or America. The knives, forks, and plates were of English manufacture, and of the most costly kind.' In 1836 Julia Pardoe attended a dinner at the house of Ömer Pasha, governor of Skodra, that was 'perfectly European in its arrangement, being accompanied by silver forks, knives, and chairs; but the luxury of the East had, nevertheless, its part in the banquet, for the cloth that covered the table was enriched with a deep border of exquisite needlework, and the napkins of muslin, almost as impalpable as a cobweb, were richly embroidered in gold.'

French table arrangement became so de rigeur for formal dinners at which foreigners were present, that by the time George Howard Earl of Carlisle visited Turkey in 1853 it had become difficult for foreigners eager to experience 'real' Turkish life to find anyone willing to indulge them. Only through his acquaintance with Dr Sandwith, who had lived in Turkey for many years and was on familiar terms with many Turkish dignitaries, was the earl able to obtain an invitation to a Turkish dinner given by Ismail Pasha, physician to Sultan Abdülmecid. Dr. Sandwith told Howard that 'even I did dine at any great repast given by some Turkish Pasha or minister, I should probably only find a reproduction of European customs, knives and forks, etc.; so he undertook to show me a genuine Turkish house and dinner.' Howard had the usual difficulty with his legs, but otherwise enjoyed the occasion:

'Our host talked some French; the rest nothing but Turkish, in which Dr. Sandwith is very fluent. All sat down on low cushions upon their legs: this I could not quite effect, but managed to stow mine under the small low round table.  Upon this was placed a brass or copper salver, and upon this again the dishes of food in very quick and most copious succession... I must say that I thought the fare itself very good, consisting in large proportion of vegetables, pastry, and condiments, but exhibiting a degree of resource and variety not unworthy of study by the unadventurous cookery of Britain.'

La Baronne Durand de Fontmagne's account of lunch given at Topkapı Palace in 1856 for the French ambassador and other foreign guests is an unusual example of an official meal for foreign guests that was entirely Turkish in both eating arrangements and dishes. Whether this meal was given in response to the curiosity of the foreign guests to experience a real Ottoman style meal, or out of a desire on the part of their hosts to acquaint them with Ottoman haute cuisine is a matter for speculation. The meal was served in a marquee in the gardens:

'They placed two tiny round single?legged tables on the carpet, and on this a large tray, slightly embossed in the centre. On this raised part the food was placed for serving. At first there was nothing but several varieties of hors d'oeuvre and fruit. No one brought plates, bowls, glasses or jugs. There were only large spoons for soup. We all sat on soft cushions in the Turkish fashion... First they distributed gold embroidered napkins to us, a span in width, which covered the right shoulder. Then the food began to arrive. They were of great variety but little in quantity. As fast as they came, they were taken away. We barely had time to dip the tip of our spoons in them. Holding a piece of bread between our thumb and forefinger, we took stuffed vineleaves onto our spoons. The Turkish method of cooking is most unusual.'

European cookery, French in particular, began to appear alongside Turkish in the 1840s, when Countess Ida Hahn-Hahn of Germany ate a lunch that began with European dishes and were followed by a succession of Turkish ones at the home of foreign minister Rıfat Paşa. 'There was on the whole a curious medley of foreign and domestic manners, customs, and dishes,' she remarked. A state banquet given at Dolmabahçe Palace for the French and British ambassadors during the Crimean War a decade later, however, was not only in 'the French and English fashion of a grand dinner,' but was served by European waiters.

Impressions of a French Chef

Alexis Soyer, the celebrated French chef who spent two years in Turkey assisting Florence Nightingale to improve the diet of British troops during the Crimean War, took full advantage of this opportunity to study Turkish cuisine. He was soon so enamoured of Turkish cookery that he wrote in a letter to The Times in September 1856:

'Though so many authors have written upon Turkey, they have yet left me several virgin pages, and those pages are upon the national cookery of the Moslem people. They have many dishes which are indeed worthy of the table of the greatest epicure, and I shall not consider my Oriental mission terminated to my satisfaction till I see in the bills of fare of France and England their purée de volaille au ris, tomates, et concombres, and purée de Bahmia aromatisée à la crème... near our whitebait, red mullets, turbot, and salmon, their fried sardines, bar fish, gurnet, sturgeon, red mullets aux herbes, oyster pilaff, mackerel, salad, etc; and with our roast beef, saddle-back of mutton, and haunch of venison, their sheep, lamb, or kid roasted whole, and the monster and delicious kebab; by our entrées of suprême de volaille, salmis, and vol-aux-vents, their doulmas, kioftee, shish kebabs, haharram bouton, pilaff au cailles, etc; with our vegetables, their Bahmia, fried leeks and celery, partligan bastici, and sakath kabac bastici; with our macédoines, jellies, charlottes, etc, their lokounds, moukahalibi, baclava gyneristi, ekmekataive. Their coffee, iced milk, and sherbet - in fact, all their principle dishes might, with the best advantage, be adopted and Frenchified and Anglicised.'

In his Culinary Campaign, Soyer wrote enthusiastically, 'The process of the Turkish cookery, though slow, I much approve of, as the succulence and aroma of every kind of food are retained, and it is far superior to our system, everything being cooked or stewed on the top of red-hot ashes laid on slabs of stone or marble.' As a result of these favourable impressions Soyer resolved to write a book to be called The Culinary Wonder of All Nations, that was to include further details of Turkish cuisine. Sadly however he died in 1858 and all his notes were destroyed by his creditors.

In 1862 a Turkish banquet was held in England, possibly for the first time. It was given by Viceroy of Egypt Mehmed Sa'id Pasha on his yacht at Woolwich, and his guests included British royalty and distinguished statesmen. So favourable was the impression made that Turabi Efendi, one of the viceroy's officials, was encouraged to compile a Turkish cookery book in English. Although his book was sufficiently well received to go into a second edition, it does not seem to have left any lasting impression on English cookery.

European Flavours

Back in Turkey urban upper class eating was becoming increasingly influenced by France. In 1862 Ottoman Minister of Education Mısırlı Fazıl Mustafa Paşa employed 45 French cooks as well as the same number of Turkish male cooks, yet it was one of the women cooks in the harem kitchen whose food was most renowned amongst his friends and acquaintances.

In 1883 the British Ambassador Lord Dufferin and his wife were surprised to find plum pudding on the menu of a banquet at Yıldız Palace given by Sultan Abdülhamid II. Apart from this gesture to honour the sultan's English guests, the menu was entirely Turkish, but this was exceptional for a banquet of the period. More usual was the banquet given by Sultan Abdülhamid II for the British ambassador in 1894, when the menu was entirely French apart from börek and pilaf. According to Abdülhamid's daughter this sultan's favourite dishes at his own table included cotelette pané and charlotte, revealing that European influence on palace cuisine was not reserved for honouring foreign guests.

As the 19th century wore on, French food and Paris fashions became status symbols of ever-increasing prestige. Ev Kadını (The Housewife), a Turkish cookery book published in 1882, contains such recipes as savarin, biscuits, peas French style, macaroni Italian style, and even imitation champagne, while five diagrams explain how to lay a table in the French manner. Cookery books that followed in the late 19th and early 20th century contained an increasing proportion of French recipes and culinary terms.

On the one hand the idea in fashionable circles that French food was the epitomy of modern culinary sophistication and Turkish food outmoded, and on the other the economic and political upheavals that beset Ottoman Turkey in the first quarter of the 20th century, both dealt Turkish haute cuisine serious blows from which it is still recovering. The kitchens of the wealthy upper classes, manned by the most accomplished and inventive cooks and supplied with the finest ingredients, had been repositories of the culinary knowledge and skills of haute cuisine, serving as educational institutions where these were passed on from master to apprentice. In the reversal of fortunes that affected so many families during these years, however, many cooks found themselves out of work or drafted into the army. Even the palace kitchens were severely affected. When Sultan Abdülhamid II was deposed in 1909, the staff of Yıldız Palace was largely dispersed, and his successor Sultan Mehmed V Reşad's new establishment at Dolmabahçe Palace was on a far more modest scale, and its kitchens obliged to comply with strict economies.


Turkish cuisine today is riding a wave of rediscovery and reappraisal by the Turks themselves as well as foreigners. Former splendours of Ottoman court cookery are being revived, and the home cooking that never went out of fashion has regained lost prestige. Interest in provincial specialities has spawned a new generation of urban restaurants featuring all kinds of dishes unknown outside their native towns and cities until recently. Surprisingly the impact of the much maligned MacDonald's hamburger chain, which took Turkey and so many other countries by storm in the 1980s, has been to boost rather than undermine traditional Turkish fast food. Encouraged by MacDonald's success, food establishments at the cheap end of the Turkish market that traditionally sold a huge range of snacks and ready cooked dishes, woke up to the realisation that they could do just as well or better with a bit of refurbishment and a new image. In this way the famous pudding shops of Istanbul, once on the verge of dying out, have now made a comeback in almost every district of the city, and their customers are wondering how they ever lived without them.

Every country's cuisine is a mirror of its sense of taste refined over the centuries, reflecting relations between people in daily life and on special occasions, and society's spiritual and cultural values. It might not even be an exaggeration to claim that a country's cuisine is its most precious heritage.

Suggested Reading

Algar, Ayla Esen, The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking, Kegan Paul, 1995
Başan, Ghillie, The Middle Eastern Kitchen, Kyle Cathie, 2001
Buell, Paul D. and Anderson, Eugene, N., A Soup for the Qan, Kegan Paul, 2000
Halıcı, Nevin, From "Sini" to the Tray, Usaş, 1999
Işın, Priscilla Mary, ed., A King's Confectioner in the Orient, Kegan Paul, 2003
Kaneva-Johnson, Maria, The Melting Pot: Balkan Food and Cookery, Prospect Books, 1996
Kortepeter, Carl Max, The Ottoman Turks: Nomad Kingdom to World Empire, Isis Press, Istanbul 1991
Mason, Laura, Sugar-Plums and Sherbet, Prospect Books, 1998
Oberling, Gerry and Smith, Grace Martin, Food Culture of the Ottoman Palace, Turkish Ministry of Culture, 2001
Orga, İrfan, Turkish Cooking, André Deutsch, 1958
Pekin, Ersu and Sümer, Ayşe, eds., Timeless Tastes, Vehbi Koç Vakfı, 1996
Perry, Charles, Rodinson, Maxime and Arberry, A. J.,  Mediaeval Arab Cookery, Prospect Books
Roden, Claudia, A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Penguin, 1985
Soyer, Alexis, A Culinary Campaign, Southover Press, 1995
Strong, Roy, Feast: A History of Grand Eating, Jonathan Cape, 2002
Tannahill, Reay, Food in History, Penguin, 1988
Zubaida, Sami and Richard Tapper, eds., Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, 1994

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