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Historical Sources on Turkish Cuisine

Kâmil Toygar

Locating the oldest information and documentation which will shed light on the roots of Turkish cuisine, making connections between the past and present, and removing certain information from narrow contexts and finding their historical sources will, I believe, always take place through historical works such as those listed below. Thus I call upon historical associations to take on a comprehensive project to go through these sources. I would like to stress that without determining the centuries-old body of Turkish cuisine, it will be impossible to keep it alive and pass it on. This is not simply the product of cultural worries; in order to adapt our foods and drinks to contemporary nutritional principles, our rich culinary information and documentation must be researched and made available.

Turkey’s first printing house was established and began producing regular publications in 1792. We call this period the “Written Works Period.”

Of the thousands of manuscripts produced during this period, there are unfortunately very few that deal directly with the subject of Turkish cuisine.  As we will soon see, the sources that we have found consist mostly of books written on other subjects, and especially of archival documents. We can list them according to their main subjects:

1. Dictionaries and encyclopedic works
2. Works of literature (divans, collections, codices)
3. Histories and geographical works
4. Travelogues of local and foreign travelers
5. Medical works
6. Works written specifically on the subjects of cuisine and nutrition, and drinks
7. Legal documents
8. Market account books
9. Palace expense account books
10. Military subsidy account books
11. Estate records
12. Public soup kitchen records
13. Islamic court registers
14. Collections of official decrees and fatwas
15. Customs record books
16. Inheritance vouchers

Now let us examine these sources and their main characteristics:

The Orkhon Inscriptions

As far as we know, the first written documentation of Turkish cooking is in the Orkhon inscriptions. Found in the area of the Orkhon and Yenisey rivers, today within the borders of the former Soviet Union, these inscriptions were made in 732-735 A.D., and thus are over 1270 years old.

Mentioned by the Iranian historian Joveyni in the 12th century, these inscriptions were seriously studied by the Swedish historian Strahlenberg as well as Thomsen and Radloff. Written in 732 by Külteğin and in 735 by Bilge Kağan, they are written in the Göktürk alphabet.

The importance of these inscriptions as relates to our topic is that they contain a detailed account of the mourning ceremonies for the dead brother of Bilge Kağan. We find the historical roots of the dish known as “yuğ,” today known as “ölü aşı” (food of the dead), in these inscriptions.

Kutadgu Bilig

The Kutadgu Bilig, which means “The Knowledge of Being Happy,” and was written by Yusuf Has Hacip in the 11th century, is a treatise on the ideal state and how it should be administered, and the duties and morals of its head of state and citizens.

Under this general subject it touches on a variety of other subjects and provides interesting information on the customs of the times, the order of ceremonies and celebrations, and both foods and eating customs.

Travelogue of Ibn Batuta

The famous Arab traveler Sherefuddin Abu Abdullah, pen name Ibn Batuta, left his homeland in 1325 and traveled through over thirty different countries, including Anatolia. He provides information about the customs of the Anatolian people, their traditions, dress/costumes and behavior, including information on their foods and drinks.

Excerpts from Ibn Batuta’s writings, telling of “Anatolia, the Northern States and Southeastern Anatolia,” were published by Mr. İsmet Parmaksızoğlu as “Excerpts from the Travelogue of Ibn Batuta.”

Divanü Lügat-İt Türk

This work by the first Turkish linguist Kâşgarlı Mahmud is not only a dictionary but a source book which includes various areas of Turkish culture. It is an important source for both Turkish and foreign researchers of Turkish culture.

It is easy to find words having to do with cooking in this work, as well as determine their meanings. Mr. Köymen has drawn heavily on this work in his book, “The Turkish Dietary System During the Time of Alp Aslan.”

First translated into Turkish by Kilisli Rıfat Bey, it was transliterated after the establishment of the Republic into the new alphabet by Besim Atalay, and published by the Turkish Language Association.

Babur Nâme

This work, which gives information on the culture surrounding the eating and drinking culture of the Turks, was written by the Turkish ruler Zahirüddin Muhammed Babur. Written in Çağatay Turkish, it is his greatest work.

The Baburnâme contains very important information from the standpoint of Turkish culture, including a wealth of material on various areas of Turkish folklore.

With its information on food and drink, it is especially valuable for the light it sheds on the origins of Turkish cuisine.

Printed in two editions by the late Prof. Reşit Rahmeti Arat, this piece has not been thoroughly examined from a folkloric perspective.

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