As it was an accepted practice at many of the mansions of the viziers, administrators and other high members of government to take a break for food, a few minutes before iftar a small tray with preserves, cheese and olives, and one or two small bowls of soup was placed in front of the waiting guests. After iftar, they enjoyed themselves with nargiles (water pipes), çubuks (long-stemmed pipes), coffee, snuff and such. The elaborately dressed head servants waited in attendance. Although it was the custom to wash one’s hands before and after the meal with water poured from a pitcher into a basin, eating with one’s hands begun to be looked upon unfavorably, so the provision of forks and spoons gradually became more common. It was also the custom to burn wormwood and ambergris, smothering everyone with their perfume. In the grand apartments, there was also a sort of ceremony with the bringing of coffee and pipes. The pipes, which to begin with must be long, and with decorated amber mouthpieces, were brought out at once to the guests present. Master of ceremonies Kâmil Bey, alluding to the bringing of pipes by the servants, would say “when will we be delivered from these louts with their javelins?” The kahvecibaşı, or head coffee maker of the apartment would bring the coffee set and stand in the appropriate part of the room; and the coffee pot was placed on a brazier with silver chains known as a stil, so as not to get cold. The assistant who carried this stil stood at the coffee master’s side. There were as many kahvecibaşıs as there were guests. The senior servants would remove the gold-thread embroidered cover and placed on the kahvecibaşı’s arm, then take the silver filigree coffee cup holders, place the cups within them, fill them with coffee from the pot atop the brazier, and making sure to hold the cup holder from the edge, hand them to the guests all at once.
An Army of Chefs
Mentioning the iftar and sahur feasts at the mansion of Mısırlı Fâzıl Mustafa Paşa’s mansion, Ali Bey writes:
Whether at Ramadan or at other times, the foods in the home of Mustafa Paşa are unlike those that come out of the homes of any of the other administrators. Because the Turkish chef and the larder would make several dishes from seafoods which the Frankish cook did not make. The dishes were quite delicious, the vessels were large and portions generous.
After iftar, it is worthwhile to mention the foods for sahur. As there were cold dishes prepared with beef, turkey and wild game, many people would go to sahur as well. At the home of Mustafa Paşa were a total of forty-five Turkish chefs, including masters, assistants and apprentices; and a proportionate number of Frankish chefs; and exquisiteness of the foods that the assistant Karanfil cooked in the harem was well known to all who are familiar with the times.
In his book, “Ottoman Customs, Ceremony and Manners,” Abdülaziz Bey relates the following about the iftar meal in the mansions of Ottoman notables:
Just as special invitations were given to the homes of high ranking people such as viziers and statesmen, there doors were open every evening to friends and guests. Besides the guests, three to five tables were also prepared for the poor, nobody was turned away, but was welcomed in. Iftar was served to them with all sorts of food and a sweet, and each received a gift of money of an appropriate amount. In the homes of viziers and extremely important statesmen, important preparations were made on Ramadan evenings, sumptuous and fancy meals were set out. In the great mansions, except for the meal prepared for the owner of the house, meals were laid out like everyday in the servants’ quarters, and the secretary, librarian, keeper of seals and imam all laid out rich meals to which guests were led according to their ranks. At the meal set out each evening were, in addition to the special Ramadan bread, other long and soft pides, various çöreks, and on a steel tray, preserves made from a variety of fruits, sucuk, pastırma, cheese and especially burma (a spiral pastry) and many different varieties of olives. In the center were eight to ten very small glass cups of cut glass with covers and handles, which contained the holy zemzem-i şerif water brought from the holy city of Mecca. The most valuable tableware and plates, towels embroidered in gold or silver thread, and silver basins were prepared. Half an hour before iftar, the breaking of the fast, wormwood or frankincense was burned in a suitable corner of the room; very rich families burned ambergris, and the doors were opened. At exactly a quarter of an hour before the evening call to prayer, the owner of the house entered the dining room and waited standing for the arrival of the guests which he would invite to his own table. When they entered, he greeted them, and when everyone had taken their places, the imam immediately began to read certain major verses from the Holy Koran, and the guests listened in silence. At this point the cannon which announced that the time had come was fired. The fast was broken, first with the zemzem water, and the meal began with the preserves and the çöreks, known as iftarlık, which lay before the guests. It was considered obligatory for there to always be at least two kinds of soup, and palace style eggs, at least three types of sweet, two types of börek and compote, as well as five or six vegetable dishes. Great care was taken in the preparation and quality of each dish. In the old days, the most famous sweets to appear at upper class iftar meals were baklava, samsa, revani, şekerpare and dilberdudağı. Among the upper classes it was considered in bad taste to include flour halva, known as “gaziler helvası” (veterans’ halva), cold lamb’s feet and in the area of vegetables, cabbage and the olive oil dishes in the iftar meal.
In addition to the invited guests, other arrivals were taken according to their degree and rank to the rooms of people such as the attendant, the secretary and the keeper of seals, and served the iftar meal, which also included various iftarlıks, sweets, böreks and all types of dishes. Privileged aghas laid out separate iftar meals for other aghast, staff, cooks and other servants in the home; each included börek and sweets. At least three or four meals were also prepared for the lower level servants in the mansion, the neighborhood watchman, the water carrier, manual laborers and other poor people who came to iftar; these would receive a few tapes of preserves, simit, a large bowl of soup; there was sure to be a sweet and a vegetable dish, as well as plenty of pilaf in a large copper dish. They smoked tobacco they brought themselves and drank coffee provided by the house; and after receiving a gift of money from the wealthy agha known as “diş kirası,” (literally, ‘tooth rent’), they departed. The other guests in the home drank coffee and smoked pipes; and a portion of them prepared to leave as the time for the last prayer of the day approached. Among these were the neighborhoodimam, müezzin and headman, as well as other people from the neighborhood who must be given a monetary gift as well. The second coffee served to the guests who remained was prepared with the addition of cardamom. Later, they too returned to their homes. Those who were under the care of the home owner or those who desired might even receive a watch in the name of a Ramadan gift. When the last prayer time came, the owner and those who remained performed the teravih namaz together, and then talked late into the night and finally dispersed.
The Iftar Table and Diş Kirası as a Tourist Activity
Societal changes occurring for various reasons have had great influence on the old Ramadan festivities and iftar meals. Only the memories of a few people of a certain age live on.
In the hotels in our large cities during Ramadan, iftar meals which carry the traces of the magnificent iftars of the past, and bring a bittersweet joy of nostalgia are continue on as a touristic and cultural event.
In order to provide the experience of those old Ramadan nights, such hotels specially decorate their dining halls, and choose the foods and drinks for these evenings, called “İftar Sofrası” (Iftar table) from the old Ottoman Turkish cuisine.
The guests are served by waiters in traditional costumes, and velvet covers embroidered with gold/silver thread are put over the chairs. Various characters such as the şerbetçi, kahveci güzeli, tatlıbaşı, yoğurtçu and others add rich variety and color to the décor.
The meal begins with the ezan and the prayer for the breaking of the fast, and at the end, when the sweets and fruit are served, a fasıl ensemble, playing on a dais encircled in embroidered velvet, plays the strains of Islamic mystic music. At this point, coffee or tea is served to those who wish, and the ensemble continues their program with religious music.
In 1993, we saw one of the old Ramadan traditions recreated in all its glory at the Zaimoğlu Hotel in the city of Adana. As we were preparing to pay our bill and leave, along with the bill came a gift (an “Iftar Dishes” cookbook printed by the hotel) in a small Hotel bag, labeled “diş kirası.”
Our older people know the “diş kirası” very well. During the Ottoman periods, the iftar meals served at the rich mansions and kiosks to friends and relatives, as well as the meals they prepared for the poor, only bird’s milk was missing. Anyone who was close to the family could attend these meals as the “Guest of God,” where they would break their fast with the “besmele,” (the phrase “Bismillahirrahmanirrahim” – In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate), and the prayer for the occasion. As they left for the last prayer of the night, all the friends and relatives who attended the meal were given a “diş kirası” gift. This was not money, but rather would be something like a silver tobacco box, amber prayer beads, an onyx pipe mouthpiece, etc.
Source: Nimet Berkok Toygar-Kâmil Toygar, Ramazan Yemekleri ve Mutfak Kültürü, Volkan Press, No: 160, Ankara, 1996.