The historical development of Turkish cuisine is directly related to the vast geography the Turks have lived on and the ingredients that these geographies have offered, enabled Turks to form a very rich and varied food culture.
The Turks of Central Asia earned their living via animal husbandry. When living conditions became unsuitable, they migrated and settled in Anatolia to start a new life. The most significant state that was formed in Anatolia were The Anatolian Seljuks. Encountering many new and different ingredients, Seljuks incorporated them into their own cuisine. The once simple cuisine, became more complex with the addition of new ingredients and new cooking methods.
13th century Muslim saint and leader Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, who is known for his poems and words of wisdom, established the religious philosophy of Sufism. In Sufism philosophy the most important place was the kitchen. In fact a person who wanted to become a member of the Dervish Lodge had to pass through some hard tests that takes place within the kitchen. During this time they were measured for their patience, obedience and endurance.
Fall of the Anatolian Seljuks also marked the beginning of the Ottomans. The foundations of today’s Turkish cuisine lays in the Ottoman palace kitchen. In the beginning the palace kitchen was more refined and modest. As the kitchen evolvement continued throughout the years, the dining tables have become more elaborate and far from humble. In 1453 Mehmet the II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, after conquering Istanbul, started paying more attention to the kitchen matters and also to the cuisine itself. It was during his reign, the kitchen purchased various new ingredients such as seafood and fish for the first time. These can be clearly seen from the accounting books of the palace, where every purchase was recorded meticulously.
In the Topkapı Palace, the kitchen consisted of 8 different sections and laid on a land of 1.3 acres. There were various kitchens used for cooking food for different occupants of the palace depending on their rank within the palace. The kitchen brigade consisted of 60 chefs and 200 apprentices, who cooked food for 4000 people daily. However this number was doubled or even tripled during the council meetings, ceremonial days, and holidays.
In the Topkapı Palace there were no assigned dining rooms. Any room in the palace could have turned into a dining room once a meal time approached, with the help of a large tray called “sini.” The food arrived on a “sini” that was placed over a tablecloth laid on the floor with a tray stand. Everybody sat on the floor around the tray and ate from the middle. The only eating utensil used was a spoon, or their hands. It was customary to eat only 2-3 tablespoons of each dish. Talking, laughing, singing and eating more than customary were not approved behaviors at the dining table. Ottomans only ate 2 meals a day. A very early breakfast and dinner before sunset.
The kitchen organization in the Ottoman Empire worked as a social corporation. The ranks within the kitchen brigade was very important and respected by everyone. Palace cuisine was very important because it symbolized the wealth of the Sultan and the Empire, therefore it was considered to be very important in relaying this message to their allies and enemies.
Towards the end of 19th century, Ottoman Empire started to lose power and decline. They were nicknamed as “the sick men”. In order to gain the sympathy of their European allies, Ottomans started to better their relations with European nations and made some changes in their lifestyles by adapting more modern ways. These changes also affected their eating habits. The royalty moved from Topkapı Palace to Dolmabahçe Palace which was decorated with baroque, rococo, neoclassical designs combined with classical Ottoman touches. They started eating at proper tables using forks and knives. Especially when foreign guests were invited for dinners, they were offered a feast that combined the best of Ottoman and French cuisines.
In the year 1923, when Republic of Turkey was established, the Turkish cuisine was separated into two categories, Classical Turkish Cuisine and Regional (Folk) Cuisine. Classical Turkish cuisine reflects the cuisine of the Ottoman Palace, and it is the founding ground for the Turkish cuisine as we know today.
Regional cuisine is the combined food culture of Turkey’s different regions. This cuisine is the result of different food related traditions and culture of inhabitants of Anatolia, who come from different backgrounds and ethnic groups, the soil structure, and the climate.