Cuisine of İstanbul Rums
The word “Rum” refers to the Orthodox citizens of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, who are descendants of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantines. The word “Rum” although it is not for certain was first said to be used during the reign of Emprorer Caracalla to refer to the Orthodox community living in Istanbul. Today when we use the word “Rum” we refer to the Ortodox minorities who have been born and raised in İstanbul or certain parts of Anatolia. In Greece the word “Rum” refers to the whole population living in Greece. However regardless of where they live, the common understanding is that when speaking of the “Şehir” (The city) İstanbul is the first place that comes to mind.
“İstanbul Rumlarından Yemek Tarifleri, Masal Yıllarımın Mutfağı” (Recipes from the Istanbul Rums, Stories from My Fairy Tale Years) was published in 2012, by Soula Bozis. Soula Bozis is a Rum from İstanbul, who now lives in both İstanbul and Athens. She is known for her first book “Politiki Kouzina” followed by a movie with the same name where she appeared in the cast. She also published another book about the Anatolian Rums, and became a well-known person in Greece.
Taken from the interview done by Nedim Atilla (N.A.) with Soula Bozis (S.B.):
N.A. “What was your thought process behind this book?”
S.B. “My first book ‘Politiki Kouzina” was written in 1994 in Athens. The year before than, I was organizing exhibitions in a cultural center in Athens. I had made a seminar series on the topic of Istanbul Rums and their kitchen culture. In addition to the seminars, I also organized a small dinner event to showcase the food. We had organized a space and set a time for the event. The turnout was so great that a lot of people could not make it because of limited space. However I am happy to announce that we ended up making a total of 6 dinner events, that served a variety of mezes, main courses and desserts.
A summary of ‘Istanbul Rum Cuisine’ was published by Tarih Vakfı (Historical Foundation), which happened to be my first book written in Turkish. Later on, a summary of “Anatolian Rums” was published. At this age, I feel like half of me belongs to Cappadocia, as a part of my family is from there and the other half belongs to İstanbul.”
N.A. “Are there any differences between the cuisine of Cappadocia Rums and İstanbul Rums?”
S.B. “There are significant differences between Rum cuisines of Cappadocia and İstanbul. In Cappadocia and in Trabzon, they are cuisines based on local products. In general the cuisines are determined by geography. The folks consume whatever is grown in a region. Unless the region is on a trade route, then it is likely that they get exposed to the products travelling on the trade route. On the other hand, Istanbul has been a capital for over 3000 years. The capital markets always receive the best of ingredients from all over the Empire. Especially the best of the best ingredients end up in the palace. This was the practice in Byzantine Empire and also the Ottoman Empire. As you know the rulers always have the fear of public rebelling against the ruler due to a possible famine. Therefore the public always needs to be kept content.
There are also differences based on religions. Within the annual cycle, there are observed holidays and days of fasting. The period until Easter, is the time when we are not allowed to eat any meat and animal based products. Creatures such as lobster or shrimp can only be consumed two times within that period. Most of the time, we would eat legumes and vegetables.”
N.A. “I believe your book ‘İstanbul Rumlarından Yemek Tarifleri, Masal Yıllarımın Mutfağı’ (Recipes from the Istanbul Rums, Stories from My Fairy Tale Years) was written in Turkish and there is no Greek version, is that correct?”
S.B. “In my book, I have included a part about my memories from my childhood and youth, that I named my fairy tale years. I wrote this part in Turkish, because that is how I felt like, there is no Greek version of that part. I felt the need to share the culinary and entertainment culture from both my grandmother’s and father’s home where I grew up.”
N.A. “Can you give some examples of the food that is inherited from the Byzantines?”
S.B. “The food culture that was inherited from the Byzantines is a very broad subject. However the most important concept that we inherit is the stuffed foods. The idea of stuffing one type of food with another kind of food is a concept that goes back even earlier than the Byzantine times. It goes as far back until the Athens Symposiums. Luxurious feasts took place in the Byzantine Palace. There were fish stuffed with chicken, chicken stuffed with meat, various birds etc. Rice was purchased for the stuffing of these dishes because it was an expensive ingredient. As you know bulghur is a very common ingredient that was grown by the locals, but rice was purchased therefore it was a special ingredients.”
N. A. “Can you tell us a bit about the desserts, especially spoon desserts.”
S.B. “The most common dessert that is prepared almost everyday is semolina helva. When going to the neighbours, house or if you happen to have some unannounced guests, semolina helva was made. “Kaşık tatlısı” (the spoon desserts) are a very important part of Rum cuisine. They were offered to guests long before there was chocolate. They resemble jams, made from seasonal fruits. The spoon desserts had a special service ritual. A small crystal vase would hold the silver spoon dessert, served with glasses of water. There is also another dessert called “çevirme tatlısı” or white vanilla dessert served the same way.
I also wanted to talk about the famous crackers made with anise. In our culture within the annual cycle there are certain special days and certain special tastes associated with those days. This anise cracker is one of them. They are offered to guests with coffee who come for the memorial service to pay their respects and give condolences to the family. These crackers were never made at home but always bought from the bakeries.”