One of the most problematic areas in the study of palace culinary history is the dishes made there, because outside of a few kitchen and feast records from the 15th and 16th centuries34, there are no sources which provide the names of these dishes and the ingredients used in their preparation. For this reason it is impossible to determine the changes that these dishes have undergone during following centuries. The absence of recipes in the kitchen and feast records have led researchers to use the names used in contemporary cook books for the names of the dishes in the aforementioned sources. A significant contribution has been made in this area by a work printed during the preparatory stage of this article35, based on a hand-written cook book from the 15th century (a translation of Şirvani’s Kitâbü’t-tabîh) which provides a large portion of the recipes used in the palace.
Including some sweets and pickles, the book contains some forty recipes, and from it we understand that the foods in the Ottoman palace in the 15th and 16th centuries was different in many respects from the food of common people during that period. Examples are the use of contrasting flavors such as honey and vinegar in the same dish36, and the heavy role of fruit 37, both stuffed as dolma38 and added to dishes as vegetables in ways quite incompatible with modern tastes. However in Ottoman food, which “in the footsteps of an ancient tradition, was based more on the blending rather than isolation of ingredients and flavors, these flavors did not annihilate each other but rather added depth to the food, and emerged in succession on the palate.39” Thus the blending of opposite flavors, which is at odds with modern tastes, must be seen as a reflection of “the accepted values of a particular period, far removed from obstacles of rigid tastes40.”
In addition to providing recipes, the work also addresses the particularities and development of the palace culinary culture. Evaluations of the palace cuisines based on unpublished documents and leading sources provide the reader a satisfying snapshot of the cuisine of the time. However arguments used by the author to show that Turkish cuisine of the 15th and 16th century are extensions of nomadic roots do not hold up to scrutiny.
Five main players emerge in the palace cuisine: wheat, meat, rice, clarified butter and sugar. In addition to breads and other baked goods, flour was also the main ingredient for several other dishes, foremost among which are tutmaç and baklava.
Red meat consumed in the palace consisted almost entirely of mutton and lamb41. In contrast, beef was not consumed directly but found a place in the palace cuisine in the form of pastırma and sucuk42. The consumption of sheep at the palace was 15,000 yearly at the end of the 15th century, 40,000 at the end of the 16th century and 100,000 by the mid 17th century. Thus the largest share of the kitchen budgets went for the purchase of sheep43. The most commonly consumed white meat was chicken, but was clearly much less consumed than mutton and lamb. At the end of the 15th century, 10,000 chickens were consumed yearly, 80,000 in the last quarter of the 16th century, and approximately 160,000 in the second half of the 17th century44. The most mutton was consumed during the winter, with the lighter chicken being preferred during the summer. It is believed that this preference was influenced by the desire to maintain the balance between the four humors in the body45.
Although nearly all foreign observers counted rice as among the basic foodstuffs of the Turks46, it is surprising that some research insist that even in the 16th century, rice was something found on the tables of the upper economic classes47, because even in the 15th century, rice was even cheaper than flour in Istanbul48, and would become even cheaper in the century to come49. The fact that rice’s price was lower than that of flour indicates that from at least the end of the 15th century, rice had become a common food among the people. Rice played an important role in several foods and drinks of the palace cuisine, foremost among which were pilaf, zerde and various soups. Consumed at the rate of 150,000 kıyye (190 tons) in the late 15th century, its consumption rose to surpass a million kıyye (1,300) tons in some years during the first half of the 17th century.
Although oils such as olive and sesame oil were used in the palace, vegetable oils were not favored for cooking, with clarified butter used in nearly all the dishes. Olive oil was generally used for lamp oil, and sesame oil was used especially in the sweets produced in the Helvahane. The tail fat and kidney fat we see in palace records was used in certain meat dishes as well as in the making of various baked goods50.
Although sugar, which in the period addressed here was still a luxury item for commoners, had not surpassed sugar as a sweetener in the palace, it did achieve a high level of consumption. Used at a rate of 5 tons per year at the end of the 15th century, this number had increased to 35 tons a year later, and toward the middle of the 17th century, had reached 65 tons. A significant portion of the sugar taken to the palace was set aside for the sherbets, compotes, preserves, pastes, halvah and other sweets produced in the Helvahane51, with the remainder allotted to the kitchens for use in certain dishes, and to the ovens for sweet baked goods52.