Ottoman Kitchen Organization
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Refined Tastes in a Refined Place: Eating Habits an the Ottoman Palace During the 15th-17th Centuries

Arif Bilgin


Meals in Topkapı Palace were prepared by the Matbah-ı Âmire Emâneti1 (Palace Kitchen Stewardship) , believed to have been established during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror. Under the administration of a kitchen steward, the institution consisted of various units and branches of service. The two most important units of the stewardship were the kitchens which prepared the food for the inhabitants of the palace, and the Helvahâne. The kitchen buildings, constructed so as to completely cover the right part of the second courtyard, consisted of ten separate sections. Eight of these were kitchen buildings, named according to the class they served (Has, Divân, Ağalar, etc.); the remaining two belonged to the Helvahâne. While the kitchens (mutfak) prepared the food for the palace’s inhabitants, thehelvahânes produced various types of sweets, preserves, compotes, sherbet drinks, macun(pastes) and pickles. The cooks working in the kitchens were made up of three classes, theüstad (masters), halîfe (servants) and şâkırd (apprentices). The apprentices were further divided into teams or bölük. Every bölük was assigned a bölükbaşı (team head). At the head of all the cooks was the head of cooks (ser-tabbâhîn), who at the same time oversaw all the personnel of the stewardship. The cooks of the helvahâne were organized in a similar way and overseen by a ser-helvacıyân, or “head halvah cook.”

The other units within the stewardship included the Kilâr-ı Âmire (administread of the pantries), where all provisions were stored, the ovens (Fırın-ı Has and Fırın-ı Harcî); the slaughterhouse (kârhâne-i kassâbîn) where all the sheep and chickens brought to the palace were slaughtered and butchered; the yogurt maker’s workshop (kârhâne-i mastgerân) responsible for acquisition of milk and the production of all milk products; the candle makers’ workshop (kârhâne-i şem‘gerân) which produced all the candles needed in the palace; the sebzehâne (vegetable house) where the vegetables bought were cleaned and prepared for cooking; the sakahâne which was responsible for water service to the palace kitchens; the mirî mandıra, responsible for the care of all the cows/buffaloes in the palace and the making of butter and cheese from their milk; and lastly, the simid kârhânesi in Bursa, responsible for the process of buying wheat from the South Marmara area, having it milled and sending it to the palace. The groups working within these units were named according to their areas of service: pantrymen (kilâriyân), bread bakers (habbâzîn), butchers (kassâbîn), poultrymen (mâkiyâniyân), etc.

To the employees of the stewardship we may also add others who have been determined exist during various periods, such as the buzcular, responsible for snow and ice service, theaşşablar who gathered medicinal herbs, the müteferrikalar, responsible for petty cash; it is unknown by whom they were chosen. There were also the eytâm, children of deceased head cooks, who worked for a low daily salary, and a buğday döğücüyü (beater of wheat) who pounded the wheat for soups. It is also worth noting that there were three separate teams within the bread makers, each responsible for the preparation of their particular part of the process: the pişirici, hamurger and elekçi (baker, dough maker and sifter).

The palace also contained a separate kitchen in the third courtyard called the kuşhâne. Employing cooks from the Matbah-ı Âmire despite being unaffiliated with the stewardship, this kitchen served the other foremost persons at the palace. This kitchen was also served by page boys who were members of the cellar wards (kiler koğuşu). It is believed that thekuşhâne operated separately from the kitchens affiliated with the stewardship, which produced two meals per day.

The Development and General Characteristics of the Palace Cuisine

The cuisine of the palace may be considered the zenith of Ottoman culinary culture. These cuisines display a structure basically dominated by basically Turkish eating habits, though with other contributions as well. For this reason we must see them as cultures brought by nomadic Central Asian Turks, which were developed and enriched by various influences as they settled and spread through Anatolia. Thus Turkish cuisine, and palace cuisine in particular, is a cuisine under the influence of Chinese, Iranian, Arab, Byzantine, European and Mediterranean worlds.

As cultures exist in a state of constant interaction, and culinary culture is a part of the total culture, it cannot exist outside the influence of the cultures which surround it. From the time the Turks left Central Asia until their settlement in Anatolia, they interacted with various cultures. The fact that during their period in Central Asia their cuisine shared similar elements with those of their neighbors the Chinese indicates that there was interaction between these two opposing elements2. During their migration to Anatolia, the Turks took advantage of the eating habits and ingredients present in the countries in which they stayed. The evidence of the influence from Iran and the Arab world survived even until the Ottomans became a world empire3. Following the Turks’ settlement in Anatolia and especially throughout the Ottoman period, exchange with both eastern and western cultures continued. These interactions were based chiefly on conquests and political relationships (marriages etc.). In the areas they conquered, the Ottomans became acquainted with new products 4 or began producing many different plants on these fertile lands 5. Crops encountered for the first time, or newly entering production, were taken to the large cities, where they contributed to the development of the inhabitants’ tastes.

Doubtless the influence was two-sided. The Ottomans’ use of knowledge from various cultures was matched by the transmission of Ottoman dishes into the cuisines of many societies. Examples of this mutual give and take are plain to see in many works6. As eating and drinking habits are one of the slowest areas of culture to change, the abovementioned interaction took place over a long period of acquaintance/adaptation. Thus the fact that ingredients originating in America such as potatoes and tomatoes took centuries to spread throughout Ottoman lands should not be surprising.

Certain distinguishing and noteworthy features of the Ottoman palace culinary culture should be mentioned. These are at the same time covered by the general characteristics of Ottoman folk cuisine and even by the culinary culture of the Islamic world. Consequently it must be stressed that the distinguishing features mentioned here are those that emerge upon comparison with the western world.

Let us mention first of all that the Ottoman palace eating habits were not based on one or just a few basic ingredients, but rather there was an attempt to use the available ingredients in a completely balanced manner. We know for example that in the Far East, Southeast Asia, India and Iran of the middle and modern periods, rice reigns supreme despite regional differences. In a significant portion of these regions, wheat and meat was almost entirely absent. In Europe on the other hand, the reign of rice was replaced by meat, with plant products in second place. In contrast, in the periods studied, nearly all meat and plant products were consumed. Although meat, wheat, rice and clarified butter played the main role, the residents of the palace were able to consume almost all of the other available animal and plant products in a balanced manner. For this reason it is safe to say that the culinary culture of the Ottoman palace presents a complex structure which united the habits of east and west.

Another characteristic of the palace culinary culture was that it was based on the assumption that there was a close relationship between nutrition and health. This attitude arises from traditional Islamic medicine employed by the Ottomans, according to which there were four humors in the human body: blood, phlegm, bile and black bile. Balance of these humors brought health, the upset of this balance led to illness. Among the influences on the amount and level of these humors was food and drink. For this reason, it was considered necessary to follow a diet which achieved the balance among the humors throughout the year. If this balance was upset, one would have to refrain from certain foods and follow a strict regime of medicines. In addition, these humors were believed to change during each season. In spring and fall, foods which would build blood should be consumed, while summer foods should lower bile, winter foods should lower phlegm and autumn foods should lower black bile7. Doctors, and perhaps some of the kitchen personnel, versed in all these subtleties of Islamic medicine, thus had foods served which changed according to the seasons and thus would maintain the balance of the aforementioned humors.

Meals at the palace also served a symbolic purpose: they were the most significant symbol of the generosity of the sultan, who was characterized as “Allah’s shadow on Earth. In addition, there were strict rules at palace meals regarding manners and the way one sat. Who would eat at which sofra and the rules to be followed during the meal were clear. The seating arrangement at meals was dictated by a hierarchy. From the first application of Mehmet the Conqueror’s constitution on, the sultans began eating only with the members of their own family8 . In addition, the grand vizier, başdefterdar and other defterdars and viziers as well as the nişancı shared two sofras. The military judges (kadıasker) also ate at a separate sofra. Those of lower rank ate at the same sofras after their superiors left, and ate what was left9. Thus these meals, while they displayed the generosity of the sultan, also served a symbolic purpose of keeping alive a succession of dependence which extended from lower civil servants up to the sultan himself.

The palace residents ate two meals a day. Breakfast was served in late morning, and the evening meal was served immediately following the evening prayer10. Meals were eaten seated on the floor around low sofras made of leather known as bulgârî. With the exception of feasts given for foreign state representatives, luxury and ostentation was generally avoided at meals11. Meals did not last long; in fact foreign observers remarked on their brevity. Everyone at the meal did not receive their own plate; rather each dish came in its own plate and everyone ate from that dish. Gold, silver and porcelain plates were used at the palace12, but these were reserved for special occasions; palace employees mostly ate from tinned copper platters. Forks and knives were not used; most of them ate with wooden spoons and the remainder with special and very costly spoons made from precious stones and metals. In comparison with the west, with the exception of feasts and celebratory meals as well as certain members of high society, meals generally did not include an extremely costly menu13.

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