Cuisine of Harem
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Cuisine of Harem

After the meal, the pitcher and basin were brought once again and hands were carefully washed with soap. In some mansions, a marble fountain was built into one wall of the dining room. This made it easy for both the servers and the diners to wash their hands before and after the meal.

The very young princes and princesses ate with their mothers at their tables, sometimes joined by the head servant.

Following the meal, coffee was served with a slightly complex utensil. A small silver basin called a stil,carried with three long chains attached at the edges and uniting at the center was filled with hot coals and a few pieces of fresh charcoal. The silver cezve in which the coffee was boiled was placed on this stil in order to stay hot. The stil was brought in by one concubine, who took care that it did not touch the floor. Another concubine brought small coffee cups, which were in silver inlaid or jeweled holders, on a tray covered with a silver-embroidered silk or velvet cloth. A third concubine filled the cups, placed them in their holders and then, holding them from below with the thumb and forefinger, presented them in an elegant manner. The lower part of the holder rested on the end of the forefinger, while the thumb held the upper edge to provide balance.

This was a difficult service to master, requiring considerable skill to avoid knocking over the extremely fragile cups, and make the coffee with no spills or overflows.

Contrary to the belief in the west, the ladies, princess or others in the harem never smoked cigarettes, pipes or nargiles (water pipes). In later times, some of the older kalfas began smoking cigarettes, but in moderation, and took care to do it only in private. Only the head kalfas drank coffee, the concubines did not.

The kalfas, or head servants, received their food presented in the same way as to the princesses. However the kalfas ate all together at a single sini, in one of their rooms. The cloth covers they used were of embroidered silk; the sini was simple. Their silver-edged low table had legs of wood and their platters were of local white porcelain with flower patterns. The kalfas used silver spoons. Every kalfa had a silver bowl containing a delicate hand cloth, a little water and a small piece of soap. They washed their hands in this bowl, changing the water several times. The kalfas were served by new concubines who were assigned to them for training. The concubine’s meals were served in a similar way, but in a hall located on the floor below their masters’ apartments. Every concubine brought her own spoon and towel, and washed her own hands after the meal. The spoons were kept in small pouches to keep them from becoming dusty.

Forks3 came into use in the palace only in 1860; it gradually became a habit and spread to other areas. Today in the palace and other places as well, meals have long been eaten as in other countries, if less ostentatiously.

In the palace, breakfasts sometimes included cold meat (kavurma) and eggs, and always honey, kaymak, cheese and preserves. Lunch was eaten before noon, and in winter at 10:00.

The dinner was brought out two hours before sunset. As they ate so early, there was no regular meal in the evening; instead, they served either fresh fruit according to season, or dried fruit.

Source: Leyla Saz, Memoires-The Palace Harem in the 19th Century. Istanbul, 2000

3 Among middle class families, the use of forks and individual plates was learned and spread chiefly in boarding and military schools. Young people studying for many years in boarding schools adopted the manners they learned there and brought them home with them. In this way the boarding schools were a helpful influence in changing old Turkish habits to the extent possible. Young people attending boarding schools gradually began to adopt western-style clothing as well. These young people were also influential in adoption of post beds, stools and benches.

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