In the Ottoman Empire, all kitchen accounts were kept in their own separate books (13). These records were kept from day to day in full detail, a book for each month, and contained whatever was eaten and drunk in the palace, what was bought, what was brought, and how much, as well as the bakery/oven costs (8). For example, every Sunday and Thursday, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, through the kiler emini (the person in charge of the pantry/provisions) distributed 150 akçe of bread to the poor, These alms were entered among the palace’s kitchen expenditures (8). In addition, traveling kitchen expenses incurred for official and pleasure trips taken by the sultan were recorded, as were provisions for the Harem and the Enderun.
An officer known as the pazarbaşı (market head) was responsible for acquiring the ingredients for the food to be cooked each day. Each head chef had 60 chefs and 200 assistants in his service. In addition there were people with specific charges: tatlıcıs, tavukcus, yoğurtçus, simitçis, meyvecis (responsible sweets, chicken, yogurt, simit [bread rings], fruit) etc. Food and bread was prepared before the noon prayer, and placed on trays according to where they would be sent, carried by the tablakâr (tray carriers) on their heads. Only the meals for the sultan were prepared in a separate kitchen known as the kuşhane (1).
The third in rank of the kitchen wards, the “cellar/pantry ward,” was established by Sultan Mehmet. The head of this ward was the kilerbaşı or pantry head. His task was to serve the foods prepared for the sultan in the proper way. The duties of the pantry ward staff was to prepare and store the foodstuffs and drink for the sultans and their mothers, the princes and princesses, the head wife and favorite wives, and to light the candles in the palace. After Dolmabahçe Palace was built and became the official residence of the sultans, Sultan Abdülmecid abolished the pantry ward and in its place, had the offices of the Hazine kethüdalığı (Ministry of the Economy) built (14).
In the old days, two meals were customarily eaten at Ottoman palaces; one in late morning and an evening meal after the evening prayers (11). This tradition was a holdover from the time of Osman Gazi (1299-1324). Osman Gazi would sit to eat in his apartment following the evening prayer, along with however many people were in his apartment. Later, Murat II (1421-1451) established the protocol of ten people to a sofra (15). After the 16th century this custom was abandoned, and palace residents began eating three meals as in the west (11).
As the evening meal was eaten after the early evening prayer, a simple evening “breakfast” type meal called “yatsılık” was prepared for those who were hungry before bed time. This duty fell to the pantry kalfas (attendants), and consisted of foods such as Circassian chicken, haseki pilaf, ekmek paparası (a dish prepared with dry bread and broth) and “palace eggs” (an egg dish cooked with onions) (15).
These kalfas responsible for food service at the palace had from the early days eaten on a mat covered with a leather sofra. Later, during the reign of Mahmut II, they began sitting on low collapsible stools around a copper tray. These kalfas worked as various sorts of attendants; at doors, at the sultan’s hall, as laundry attendants. Each had a specific duty – food service, knocking the door to call the harem lords, sweeping, etc.
Wives at the palaces and mansions were also referred to as kalfas. Following their induction, novice wives would rise in rank and become a kalfa. According to their beauty and experience, these kalfas were sent to the apartments of the sultan, the wife of the sultan, the princes and the sultan’s favorite female servant. The kalfas were divided into three ranks according to their seniority – great, mid and small kalfa. The kalfa responsible for making the sultan’s coffee and caring for the coffee sets was the kahveci usta. The serving of coffee also was carried out with ceremony. The kahveci usta and her helpers bore a heavy work load, especially during the bayrams (the two main feasts of Islam, one following Ramadan and the other commemorating God’s provision of ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son). Their chief duty was to quickly prepare and serve coffee to the wives and princesses coming for bayram visits (10).
The kalfa who oversaw the sultan’s pantries and pantry ware was known as the kilerci usta. She was assisted by a second kilerci and cariyes in her charge. All of the sherbets, fruits and nuts for the sultan were stored in his own pantry. The kilerci usta and çaşnigir usta served the sultan as he was eating (10).
Whatever the season, it was customary in the Ottoman palaces to have hoşaf (a thin compote) at the end of every meal. The hoşaf came to the meal in a copper tankard, and was drunk in the order of rank. First the most senior kalfa took the tankard by the handles and drank, followed by the second and third kalfas. This custom was known as the hoşaf nöbeti (hoşaf turns). It was considered bad manners to get up from the mal before drinking hoşaf. It was believed that the hoşaf nöbeti would only cease to be practiced as the Day of Judgment neared (15).
Though spoons were used for liquid foods such as soups and hoşafs and other sweets as well as for pilaf, forks and knives began to be used in the Ottoman palace only towards the end of the 19th century. Before their introduction, it was considered appropriate to eat with the three fingers of the right hand. Hand cloths were ready in case the fingertips became soiled. Towels called peşkir were draped over the knees during meals, and the meal service began. After the meal, hands were washed and dried, again in order of rank (5).
It was considered shameful and inconsistent with palace etiquette to slurp soup and drinks, chew with one’s mouth open, grind one’s teeth, wipe ones hands on the sofra, spread bread crumbs around and eat greedily (15). In addition, it was not well looked upon to dive into the food the moment it was brought, take from any part of a dish other directly in front of one, and spill or drip food onto the tray (5).
The trays of food were not completely eaten; they were not sent back to the kitchen completely empty, because this food would feed the servants as well. For this reason the oldest person at the meal would give the signal to the servants to remove the plates. The old wives would show as much care at the sofra as they did in the kitchen, taking great pains to abide by palace etiquette in the laying out of the sofra and the orderly arrangement of the dishes. If there was a guest at the meal, the host would be the first to begin eating, but would not get up from the meal before the guest. It was the duty of the çeşnici and kilerci to see to the food service of those invited to the palace. Setting a meal for guests, and serving foods prepared by the kilerci kalfas such as salads and fruit, was the job of the çeşnici kalfas. The çeşnici kalfas waited in attendance to guests from the beginning to the end of the meal (3).
The Dining Etiquette and Habits of the Sultans
The Sultans would arise before dawn and perform their morning prayers, then have breakfast alone in a room by the pantry. The sultan’s noon meal arrived on a tray brought from the kuşhane kitchen. It was the duty of the kilercibaşı to bring this meal, prepare the sofra, remove the covers from the dishes and change the foods. In addition, there were tasters on duty, known as çeşnigir. Dishes served to the sultan were mostly brought on golden platters arranged on a large tray. These platters were also prepared for the sultans’ wives. The tray was wrapped in a cover, and sealed by the kilercibaşı, who tied it with a ribbon. This was a precaution against the poisoning of the sultan and his wives, and was observed until the end. The trays were carried on the heads of the tablakârs, who took them to the harem accompanied by a kilerci. The kilerci walked in front in a dignified and respectful manner without looking right or left, and returned in the same way. They were met at the door to the harem by harem guards (3). The dishes brought for the sultan numbered 24, sometimes as many as 37. The food left after the sultans ate were then taken to the princes and their mothers. According to protocol, they were then given to the odabaşı. Sultans never ate off of silver platters (16).
When a sultan wished to eat, he would tell his kapıağa, or door guard, who would send the order to the sofracı (one responsible for laying the sofra) via a eunuch. He would then bring the foods platter by platter to the sultan’s table. His majesty would sit cross-legged at the sofra and the kapıağa would place a very precious peşkir in order to protect his clothing. A second peşkir, with which he would wipe his mouth and fingers, was placed on his left arm. His food was not cut and prepared as it was for the princes; he did this himself. A sofra spread was laid out in front of him, on which there was always a great variety of fine fresh breads. Two spoons were provided, one for soup and the other sherbets or hoşafs. The dishes were brought in one-by-one and when finished, the plates were removed. No salt was used at the table and there were no appetizers. After meat, baklava or a similar sweet was served without fail. At the end of the meal, he would wash his hands in a golden basin, using a pitcher inlaid with precious stones (17).