Ceremonial and Celebratory Meals
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Kitchen Organization, Ceremonial and Celebratory Meals in the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Palaces

The palace in which the sultan resided was generally referred to as the Saray_ı Humayun. The most famous of these is Topkapı Palace, today the Topkapı Palace Museum. In1640, Topkapı Palace was home to 40,000 people, but in 1478, during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, only 726 people lived in the palace. In view of the numbers of people living their during the reigns of his successors, we must conclude that Sultan Mehmet’s reign was one of simplicity and frugality(8).

The first palace which Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror constructed after taking Istanbul was the Eski Saray, or “Old Palace.” Begun in 1454 and finished in 1457, this palace was where Beyazit University’s garden is today (8.9). Until the completion of this palace, Mehmet lived in the palace in Edirne. Later the old palace was set aside for the mothers of deceased or dethroned sultans, some of the old wives (cariyes) who had fallen from favor and the sisters of the sultan (8). Construction on the new palace (Topkapı) was begun in 1465, and the first stage of its construction was completed in 1478. The first palace to be built was the Çinili Köşk; the second was the Sırca palace. The Bab-ı Hümayun (1473) was completed only during the last years of Mehmet’s life. The Arz Odası, Divan and Has Oda were built during Mehmet’s reign; the Harem was constructed during later years (8). The Ottoman sultans lived in Topkapı Palace until 1873, when the Dolmabahçe palace was built (10). Thus until the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid, the heart of the Ottoman Empire was Topkapı Palace (3).

Ottoman palaces were generally divided into three sections, known as the Birun, Enderunand Mabeyn (10). The Enderun is the inner section of the palace; the Harem was located in this section. The Birun, known as the Mabeyn-i Hümayun after the Reformation period, consisted of the outer sections of the palace (7). The true name of the Harem is theDarüssaade’, which means “house of happiness.” Those entering from either of its two gates would come to the harem ağaları or harem lords, standing guard. The Ottoman harem was built around the apartment of the sultan and that of the Valide Sultan, his mother (10).

The third gate of Topkapı Palace, the Babüssade, was guarded by white eunuchs. Beyond the gate of the kuşhane, or private kitchen, the management of the harem was in the hands of black eunuch guards (10). Those working in the Palace would enter through the first gate of the Topkapı Palace, the Bab-ı Hümayun, no later than one hour after their dawn prayers (11).

The Babüs-selam is the middle gate of the palace, beyond this gate begins the second section of the palace, a 160x130 m rectangular area. As processions (alay) for bayram and other occasions were held here, it was also known as the Alay Meydanı, or “procession square.” At the right side of this area is the Matbah-ı Amire, or palace kitchen; and at the left were the royal stables (11).

Organization and Food Rules in the Palace Kitchens

The Ottoman palaces in Istanbul and Edirne contained two kitchens, the Matbah-ı Hümayunand the Matbah-ı Amire. The Matbah-ı Hümayun (Imperial Kitchen) was used only for the preparation for the sultan himself. At Topkapı Palace, this kitchen, also known as thekuşhane, was located within the Harem (13). The kitchens of the Palace made up a large and complex institution. The cooks preparing daily meals belonged to several separate classes. At the head of the list, overseeing the food cooked for the sultan, were the kuşçubaşlıs, and next in line were the has mutfak cooks, who cooked for the mother of the sultan as well as the residents of the harem. The third section was the Matbah-ı Amire, which prepared the food for those in the Enderun and the Birun, and anyone else who, for whatever reason, was eating within the palace. In addition to these were approximately 300 more cooks, referred to by their specialties such as tatlıcı (sweet maker), balıkçı (one who prepared fısh),hamurcu (who dealt with dough/baked goods) etc. (12).

The tatlıcıs, or sweet/dessert chefs, comprised a separate class within the palace chefs. This group, responsible for the preparation of halvah, macun (“pastes,”), syrups and other sweets, were known as the hevacıyan-hassa (royal halvah makers) (12). In their kitchen, thehelvahâne, they produced sherbets, preserves and even fragrant soaps. The highest officer in the helvahâne was the helvacıbaşı (head halvah chef). Both Turkish and Western dishes were prepared for great feasts; and only during the late periods were pastries, cake and botansale brought in from outside. In addition to the other chefs at the palace were those whose only duty was to make pilaf (3).

Every section of the kitchen had an aşçıbaşı, or head chef, and the highest ranking of them was known as the baş aşçıbaşı or “head head chef.” All of the kitchen personnel worked under the Matbah Eminliği, or Kitchen Trust.

As we examine the ideal organization of a kitchen today, it is interesting to compare it to the Ottoman kitchen hierarchy during the 14th century. Just as in the Ottoman kitchen, we see a chain of command beginning from the Matbaa Eminliği (Kitchen management – head chef), the Üstüdan-ı Matbah-ı Amire (Subordinate chefs), Matbah-ı Has (Specialty chefs, meat chefs etc.) down to the Matbah-ı Has-şagirt (Apprentices). All apprentices, regardless of the sections in which they worked, fell within the Matbah-ı Has-şagirt category (4).

Following dawn prayers, the stoves, consisting of eight sections, were lit. On some days food was prepared for four to five thousand people (11). The palace personnel ate two meals a day prepared at the palace kitchens, and stayed in apartments within the palace (13).

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