Historical Sources on Turkish Cuisine
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Historical Sources on Turkish Cuisine

The work serves as a first-hand source for those studying historical sources concerning Turkish cuisine. Some of its features which interest us include:

A. The Es’âr Defteri contains: a) names of foods; b) names of foods in the commercial kitchens of the period; c) names of kitchen utensils.

B. They include the many varieties within each type of food stuff, drink or dish, and one can get an idea of what products from which cities in the Ottoman Empire were famous. There is also information on what foodstuffs came from outside the Empire.

C. They provide the weights and measures in which foodstuffs were bought and sold.

D. There is information which allows us to compare the prices of a  particular foodstuff or dish with that same item today.

E. We also find information which indicates the differences in quality within a particular foodstuff, and professional tricks used to deceive the consumer.

I  hope to provide more detailed information on this subject in an upcoming article, “The Importance of the 1640 Es’âr Defteri from the Standpoint of Turkish Cuisine.”

İmaret Records

Another source of information on our culinary history is the records of the imarets (poorhouses, public soup kitchens), which were established and administered by charitable foundations (vakıf). These institutions, which held a privileged place among the Ottoman religious, cultural and social welfare institutions, were established by the sultans, or with his permission, by distinguished men of state.

When researching the imarets from the standpoint of Turkish food, the basic sources to which we look are their deeds of trust (vakfiye) of their sponsoring charitable foundations. These deeds provide detailed information on the purpose of the foundation, who shall benefit from the foundation, and foundation’s source of income.

From the imarets’ yearly accounting logs and bills, we can determine the kinds of foods cooked at the imarets, the ingredients used, the measurements used in their buying and sale, and the different foods cooked on normal days and special days such as Ramadan, the Feast of the Sacrifice etc. We can also learn who benefited from the imaret kitchens, the types of foods given to various travelers who visited them, and the various utensils which provide insight into culinary ethnography of the time.

The article, “Studies of the Establishment and Functioning of the İmaret Facilities in the Ottoman Empire from the Standpoint of the Formation and Development of the City” by the late historian Prof. Ömer Lütfi Barkan, (3) clearly illustrates just how important these documents are in the study of Turkish cuisine. 

This excerpt from the abovementioned article tells what foods were served to travelers at the guest house (tâbhane) of the Fatih İmaret:

“According to the charter of the foundation, it is assured that everyone, rich or poor, will be met with a smiling face and respect, and travelers who are fatigued from the hardships of travel will be allowed to stay at the imaret’s guest house for three days to relax and regain their strength, being provided free of charge with whatever necessary for that purpose, as well as feed and stables for their animals; and that the registered guests will be served delicious foods.

“It is worthy of note that every newly arrived guest was immediately given 50 dirhems of strained honey and 100 dirhems of fodla (a coarse whole wheat bread) to satisfy their hunber; and those guests deemed “of high standing” would also receive a two-akçe bowl ofpaça (goat or lamg’s feet). Every year preserves made from 50 okkas of squash, half a kantar of honey and a certain amount of cinnamon were given to the guests, and each year 80 crocks of pickled grapes, 3000 pickled eggplants and 6 kantar of pickled onions were served to guests (such as the learned and religious devotees).” (4)

Estate (Tereke / Muhallefat) Records

One genre of records in the Ottoman archives are the muhallefat records. In Ottoman administration and financial terminology, the word muhallefat referred to any goods, items and money left behind by the deceased, i.e. his/her estate. Estate documents refer to any documents related to this subject. (5)

The estate records should not be seen merely as documents revealing the Ottoman economy and social history. The items listed in these documents and their variety, clearly illustrate the richness of Turkish culture.

The significance of estate records to the subject at hand is that they document the materials used in Turkish kitchens. The kitchen utensils, foodstuffs and animals which occur in these records shed valuable light on the Turkish diet.

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