Travel News

Ottoman cuisine in Turkey

In the restaurants of Istanbul, chefs are serving Turkish cuisine from imperial recipes devised by the real forefathers of modern-day gastronomy, writes Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios.

By Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios
Shane Delia in Istanbul
I've always fancied myself as too down-to-earth for princess fantasies. As a kid, I'd be clambering up trees or chasing tadpoles in ponds rather than decorating doll's houses or hosting tea parties for teddy bears. My career as an archaeologist was an extension of that youthful obsession with dirt and discovery - a brilliant excuse to get down and dusty in exciting places. After that, I stalled at "A" in the careers handbook - I've played at being an art historian, art auction specialist, academic and art valuer. Recently I've wandered further into the careers alphabet and started work in television. And this is how I find myself in Istanbul, playing princess.
I'm waiting for Shane Delia. The Melbourne chef is on an odyssey of sorts. Last year he took SBS viewers on a 10-episode tour across Malta, Lebanon and Iran to source the flavours that inspire the menu at his restaurant, Maha. Next stop is Turkey, and I've been sent as an advance party to plan his latest adventure.
One of the most exciting current trends in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul, is the revival of Ottoman culture and cuisine from a time when Constantinople was the centre of the world. For almost five centuries from their eyrie in Topkapi Palace, atop picturesque Seraglio Point, the sultans' power stretched from Budapest to Baghdad and the Caspian Sea, and covered most of the Mediterranean basin.
The imperial era ended in 1922, when Mustafa Atatürk drove the Ottoman dynasty from power after the bitterly fought war of independence. The sultanate was regarded as the last bastion of a bygone era standing in the way of Atatürk's modernisation program in which Western culture was seen as the pinnacle of sophistication. Today, there's no ignoring Western influences; even the home-grown takeaway staples, kebabs and köfte, must compete with McDonald's and Burger King.
There are signs Istanbulis are rediscovering their Ottoman past, though it's not without controversy. Many progressive Turks regard the glorification of the sultanate as a tactic by the conservative ruling party to undermine the secular system of government that has preserved Turkey's cosmopolitan lifestyle for 90 years. If Atatürk represents modern, secular Turkey, the Ottoman Empire was the apogee of Muslim power.
When it came to excess, the Ottoman court had it sorted. It cherrypicked the best traditions from the Roman and Byzantine civilisations that preceded it in Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was then known, and absorbed them into a way of life that became a byword for indulgence. The Turkish hammam, for example, was an adaptation of the ancient Roman bathing ritual, and it became a central part of Ottoman life after Mehmed the Conqueror captured the city in 1453.
My brief reign as an Ottoman princess begins beneath the soaring dome of the Ayasofya Hamami in Sultanahmet, hand held gently by my attendant, Leyla. Her other hand is gloved in an exfoliating mitt and she's scrubbing my skin, not so gently. I'm pink as a pomegranate when she leads me to the heated marble slab - the göbek tai, or "tummy stone" - at the centre of the room and covers me in suds scented by oil from the Judas tree. I gaze at shafts of golden light filtering through the steam from glass discs embedded in the dome. Long ago the Hürrem Sultan Roxelana reclined on this very slab, attended by her odalisques, or harem slaves. She built the Ayasofya Hamami in 1556 for her husband, Suleiman the Magnificent. It was restored to its former glory and reopened in 2011 in the plaza between the city's premier landmarks, the 17th-century Blue Mosque and 6th-century Hagia Sophia.
A wander through the fragrant laneways of the 17th-century Grand Bazaar offers a sense of this city's exotic past. Camel trains brought spices from India, silk from Persia, ivory from Africa, frankincense from Yemen, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Traders gathered to pay homage at the Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman court was known.
With access to the world's most exotic ingredients, the kitchens at Topkapi Palace developed a style of cooking that has been described as one of the world's grand cuisines. The palace was a city within a city; in its kitchens an army of 1300 kitchen staff prepared food for up to 10,000 people a day. Meticulous kitchen records list orders such as "60,000 sheep", "100,000 pigeons", and "2000 pounds of cloves and nutmeg"; one notable banquet had 130 courses.
As Delia points out, Ottoman cuisine was more than a meal. "What made it unique was the importance it placed on opulence and grandeur," he says. "It was a symbolic expression of supremacy, wealth and entitlement." And its importance extends beyond the plate. "This imperial cuisine created the framework for what we know now as the contemporary French kitchen and our modern kitchen structure. The Ottomans are the real forefathers of modern-day gastronomy."
Many of the extraordinary recipes concocted in Topkapi were rarely, if ever, served outside the palace and were lost or forgotten after the empire was dismantled. This posed an enticing challenge for restaurateur Batur Durmay, who began researching the palace archives in the 1990s. "At my mother's hotel, guests would ask where they could try authentic Turkish cuisine, not just kebabs," he says. "I couldn't understand why we didn't have any good restaurants serving Ottoman flavours in Istanbul, so I decided to set one up myself. But it took a lot of work."
Drawing on original Ottoman kitchen registers, Durmay has managed to re-create authentic court cuisine at Asitane, his restaurant in a restored 19th-century timber Ottoman mansion in Edirnekapi.
I come to Asitane as much for a history lesson as for a meal. Delia sees in Durmay's menu a side of Turkish cuisine he has never encountered. "I've been to Istanbul before, but never like this. This time I have an all-access pass to the city's hidden secrets."
Among the imperial dishes we enjoy are hums, crushed chickpeas with currants, pine nuts and cinnamon - as served to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1469 - and mutanjene, lamb braised with apricots, raisins and almonds, which featured at a feast for Suleiman the Magnificent's two sons in 1539.
If Asitane re-creates food fit for kings, across the Bosphorus in the Asian side of the city, chef and culinary historian Musa Dadeviren revives historical dishes that were served in ordinary homes throughout the Ottoman empire. He travels around the country recording dishes on the brink of extinction and describes his restaurant, Çiya Sofrasi, as "a garden of lost cultures and forgotten tastes". The menu features rare dishes such as sevketi bostan, milk thistle and lamb braised in olive oil with lemon and egg, and çatlak kavurma, unripe figs baked with pomegranate, tomato, peppers and garlic.
On the ferry ride back to the European side of the city, there's no ignoring the ornate and imposing Ottoman palaces along the Bosphorus shoreline. By the 19th century, Topkapi was considered too pokey and passé for the Ottoman court and Sultan Abdülaziz relocated to Çiraan Palace on the European shore of the Bosphorus. It was damaged by fire in 1910 and remained unoccupied for nearly 80 years, until its recent transformation into a five-star Kempinski hotel in which travellers, too, can live like royalty.
I'm here for a taste of Çiraan Palace Kempinski's Ottoman-revival dining rather than a night in the Sultan's Suite. Beyond the lobby's dramatic white marble staircase, flanked by Baccarat-crystal balusters glittering beneath chandeliers, the maître d' greets me at the massive wooden doors of Tura restaurant.
At a candlelit table on a marble terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, dishes under brass cloches are presented with a flourish. Highlights include darüzziyafe köfte, beef and lamb mince encased in filo with pistachios, mashed broad beans and lentils, reputedly served at Suleiman the Magnificent's spring festival in 1539. There's the 16th-century court favourite, goose tandir, strips of roast goose, pine nuts and almonds served in yufka pastry. And from the 18th-century Ottoman kitchen comes kirde kebab, fragrant diced lamb and chicken served on discs of flatbread.
A full moon is rising. Ferries crossing from the Asian side sparkle as they approach. I'm dining on the food of kings in a palace by the Bosphorus. Tomorrow I'll assume my customary pragmatic approach to life, but tonight I'll remain a princess.
The first episode of the 10-part Shane Delia's Spice Journey Turkey, featuring Asitane, screens on SBS One at 7.30pm on 31 July.