Between the 14 thand 20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire ruled vast swathes of Western Asia, Southeast Europe, and North Africa. Ottoman sultans lived lives of luxury and extravagance, and they loved to eat.
Food was a big deal to the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. Sultans stocked their kitchens with exotic spices and ingredients imported from all across their massive empire, as well as from trading partners like China and Persia. Today, we’re going to take a look at how a sultan in the Ottoman Empire dined.
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OK, so let’s talk turkey. Before we get tothe specifics, you should know that theOttoman sultans weren’t big on sharing theirculinary secrets with the rest of the world. For this reason,imperial cooks were forbidden from writingdown their recipes. Some of these dishes, likebaklava and Turkish coffee, are still popular mainstaysof Turkish cuisine.
But some were lost,and others have been difficult to reconstruct. Despite the sultan’sbest efforts at secrecy, some of their favoritefoods and beverages are now commonly known. Many could even still be foundon the streets of Istanbul today, over a century afterthe fall of the empire. Imagine being richenough to have your own confectionerykitchen that would make treats for you on command. The Ottoman sultanshad such Kitchens, and they specialized inmaking jams, juices, syrups, and sweets.
The most famous and luxurious of which was baklava. Baklava dates back thousands of years, all the way to ancient Assyria, but it was the 15th century Ottomans who perfected the recipe. The oldest known references to the dessert came from notebooks written in the kitchen of Topeka Palace in 1473. Over the subsequent years, baklava would evolve from relatively simple pastry to an elaborate anytime consuming dessert made from paper thin pastry layered with honey and nuts. It requires great skill to make, which met the dish was expensive. That being the case, baklava was considered a wealthy person’s luxury well into the 19th century. It was so ingrained that even today Turks still use the expression”I’m not rich enough to eat baklava every day.” Kebab goes way back.
Ancient legends tell of brave Turkish warriors who would eat grilled meat off the blade of their sabers. Sultans have been known to enjoy it, including Sultan Abdul Aziz,who apparently ordered takeout kebab from a well-known kebab house near his country lodge during the 19th century. Huh, and you thought drive-thruways a modern invention.
Today, the most famous Turkish kebab is diner kebab, which is also known as diner kebab. Likely developed sometime in the 19th century, this type of kebab is grilled meat shaved off a vertical rotisserie. The Ottomans would have eaten the meat like Arab Sharma or a Greek euro which,incidentally, are both derived from diner kebab.
The Turkish relationship with coffee has shifted quite a bit over the years. A governor from Yemen introduced the drink to Sultan Suleiman in the 16th century. He was quite fond of it. And the thick, bitter beverage became wildly popular in Istanbul and all across the empire. However, in the 17th century Sultan Murad IV declared coffee an indecent drink.
The beverage was outlawed, and anyone found drinking it would face beheading, which still might be just about the only thing that could get coffee drinkers to reconsider their habit. It’s tough to be an addict. Turkish coffee is made from ground beans boiled in a brass pot. It packs a dense punch and hasa distinct consistency and taste that the country’s quite proud of.
One cafe in Istanbul evenbrags that its coffee is so thick even a water Buffalo wouldn’t sink in it. Well, that sounds too thick. While there is evidencethat Ottomans drank tea as early as 400 BC, the beveragedidn’t become common in Turkey until the 1900s. They originally learnedof tea from China and named it Chai,spelled C-A-Y, after the Chinese word for tea.
The late 19th century Ottomanstried to grow their own tea, but they picked an areaof the country that wasn’t well suited for it. So the crop didn’t take off. However, by theearly 20th century Turkey was usingimported seeds to create nurseries that thrived. Today, the country produceshundreds of thousands of tons of tea, which is theirsecond most consumed drink after water. The Ottomans made their teausing a multilayered pot called a samovar to boil water.
This would create ahighly concentrated drink that could be diluted to tasteby adding additional water. Modern Turks tendto take their tea with cubes of beet sugar, whichsweetens the intense flavor. They must like it because Turkeyis the sixth largest producer of tea in the world today. To most modern people,sherbet is a frozen desert made by adding fruit juiceto milk, cream, or gelatin.
But to the Ottomans, it wasa sweet refreshing drink. Made from mixing crushed fruitwith various flowers and herbs, sherbet could be enjoyedboth before and during meals. Ottoman sherbet could bemade a number of ways, but at least onerecipe recommended combining iced spring water witha syrup made from pear, quince, peach, apple, and apricot. In the 17th century,England started making their own fromsherbet powders imported from the Ottoman Empire. Because Ottomans might mixthe surf with water, ice, or even snow, theword “sherbet,” which derived from a wordthat meant “to drink,” was often translatedinto English as “syrup.”
Historians disagree onwhether borek was originally created in Turkeyor somewhere else in the eastern Mediterranean. Whatever the case, it was afavorite of the Ottoman sultans since the days of Mehmed TheConqueror in the 15th century. A flaky, savorypastry which comes in different shapes,like squares, triangles, and crescents and mightbe filled with ingredients like cheese, vegetables,or lamb, borek still remains popular today. However, the dish dishes changedquite a bit over the years.
The broke Mehmed enjoyed was likely stuffed with chicken. Later, sultans would have eaten broke stuffed with rare, imported ingredients like chestnuts, dried apricots, dates, and mincemeat, as was the case during the diplomatic banquet in 1649. Salep has a warm milky drink made from ground orchids. The main ingredient in the drink was pales flour, which was made by grinding up the dried roots of wild Anatolian Mountain orchids.
This flower, whichwas believed to have the properties ofan aphrodisiac, would then be mixed withrosewater, milk, and sugar to create a sweetdelicious treat which the Ottomansabsolutely loved. The drink remains so incrediblypopular in Turkey today the nation actually sawan appreciable decline in the populationof wild orchids and had to pass lawsforbidding its export. Pilaf is a rice dish containingvegetables, meats, and spices that’s cooked in a broth.
Turkish pilaf, forexample, was frequently cooked with mutton stock. While there are manyvarieties of Turkish pilaf, they are all cooked sothat the rice ideally doesn’t stick at alland could potentially fall from the spoonone grain at a time.
Pilaf’s history in Turkey canbe traced back to at least 1404 when the Turko-MongolianEmperor, Timur, served it at a banquet. By the 16th century,rice pilaf with not only a staple of Ottomancuisine but was also wildly popular withtheir frequent rivals in the Persian empire. A 17th century Ottoman travelerin the Persian city of Tabriz recorded 40 differentkinds of pilaf.
The city had beenoccupied by the Ottomans several times in the past. Stuffed dishes were especiallypopular with the Ottomans. In fact, an entiresubset of Ottoman cooking focused on dolma, whichare stuffed foods, and sarma, whichare wrapped foods. The love affair began wayback when the Turks conquered Constantinople in1453, and Sultan Mehmed developed a taste forvegetables stuffed with meat.
While the sultan was thefirst to take the dish, it quickly became popular. Vegetables commonlyused to make dolma include eggplants, onions,tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. Eventually, the Ottomansalso learned techniques for wrapping vegetables,rice, and spices together in grape leaves. This dish was called sarma,after its wrapping process. Bread was a stapleof Ottoman cuisine, and the ImperialPalace was known to have its own bread ovens.
Ottomans baked at least 46different types of bread, including a popularvariety known as haz ekmek, which wassoft, white, and sprinkled with seeds. Recipes show thatOttoman bakers often added fennel juiceto their dough, and Mehmed The Conquerorwas known to eat bread with melted animal fat. During the 15thcentury, Ottomans would dip bread into a chickpeaspread flavored with currant, cinnamon, and pine nuts. Th is spread is believed tobe an ancestor of hummus. Boza is made by boilingmillet in water, then sieving it,and adding sugar. It’s not an Ottomandrink and,
in fact, predates them by centuries. However, the Ottoman Empire didspread the drink to new places and drasticallyincreased its popularity. The drink had aconsistency like pudding and contained alcohol due tothe fermentation of the millet. It was because ofthis alcohol content that Sultan Mehmed IV bannedboza during the 17th century– a rule that wasn’t terriblypopular or always respected. By the 19th century, anon-alcoholic version of boza became popular, and Turks stilldrink it today, especially in winter. Sultan’s delight is anothername for “hunkar begendi,” which translates to”the ruler was pleased.”
It’s made from stewed meaton top of eggplant paste and, according to onesource, was introduced to Abdulaziz, the32nd Ottoman sultan, by an African cook inthe mid-19th century. However, not everyone agrees. Other sources say thedish was a specialty of Catholic cooks, who werelikely French or Italian and worked at the palace.
Whatever the case,the dish’s name implies that, regardless ofwho came up with the recipe, the sultan liked it. Another favorite ofthe Ottoman sultans was roasted quincestuffed with lamb. The dish, which combines thecrispiness of roasted fruit with a stuffing made from beef,lamb, pine nuts, and currants, is very hard to find today.
This is at leastpartially because quince is fairly uncommon anddifficult to locate. Even the owner of anIstanbul restaurant that specializesin Ottoman foods reported having to bribefruit vendors in saving him quinces that were large enoughand smooth enough for the dish. Ayran is a salty yogurt drinkthat long predates the Ottoman Empire.
The drink, which was createdby mixing yogurt with water, dates back thousands ofyears and was spread around by the Ottoman Empire asthey conquered the Near East. Sometimes consider thenational beverage of Turkey, Ayran is also popular inLebanon, Iran, and Greece.
Combining the tartness of yogurt with salt, ayran is typically seen as refreshing summertime drink and is still so popular in Turkey today that you can buy it at a Turkish McDonald’s. So what do you think? How does this cuisine sound to you, and how would you fare as a sultan? Let us know in the comments below. And while you’re at it, check out some of these other videos from our “Weird History.”