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Ottoman Cuisine, The Secrets of Women in the Harem

Ottoman Cuisine, The Secrets of Women in the Harem

During the glorious days of the pre-Turkish Ottoman Empire, women of the Harem played an important political role, even in the kitchen

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With a vibrant culinary scene, Turkey is currently become the new mecca for international foodies. The sophisticated Turkish cuisine binds Mediterranean cooking with Middle Eastern and Central Asian fares and spices, and has a fascinating, rich and in-depth history. During the glorious days of the pre-Turkish Ottoman Empire, women of the mystic Harem did not only play an important role in politics but also in the kitchen.

Exclusively, if ones were “the eye of the Sultan”, Padishah gozdesi, and bore a son, they would have immense powers. These powers ruled over the Palace and what was cooked in the Royal Palace kitchens which served over thousand of people and was an influence for the entire cross-cultural Empire. As the Ottoman Empire expanded and conquered more territory, selected women from the new lands were brought to the Palace and to the Sultan’s Harem. Ottoman queen mothers – Valide Sultans– controlled the Imperial Harem and other affairs like matching marriages for their sons and female followers.

From Russia to North Africa, Anatolia, the Balkans, and to Saudi Arabia the various and ethnically diverse women of the Harem also incorporated their own culinary cultures to the kitchen of the Ottoman Palace. Numerous spices and methods of cooking were introduced to the kitchen every time a new Valide Sultan was designated to prepare her most favorite fares passed on from mother, grandmother or aunties. Yet all these recipes and methods of cooking were never recorded and traditionally kept secret.

Anyone who visits the Topkapı Palace can't help but notice the vastness of the Imperial Palace kitchens. With almost 20 chimneys, meals for the Sultan, the residents of the Harem and kitchen staff were cooked here. According to sources, as many as 6,000 meals a day could be prepared here. Yet no main recipe archives were left behind with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and disintegration of the Imperial Palaces. Today the cooking in the Empire vastly affects the new republic of Turkey which came out of the ashes of the Ottomans.

Contemporary Turkish cuisines have become exceptionally popular recently. Many international jet setters travel to Turkey for the country’s vibrant culinary scene to experience the vast sophistication of the history of the cuisines, and also for the dining experience in the mystical city of Istanbul. Modern-day Turkish food is currently passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, from chef to chef and yet one thing still stood permanent; the good recipes were always kept a secret.

Nowadays with the booming Turkish economy many chefs across the country are opening their own establishments and introducing these unique recipes. Yet many of these restaurants throughout the country and particularly in Istanbul are more prone to lighter fares with “organic ingredients” and a fusion twist. Consequently the Turkish fares cooked at local homes are no doubt more true to the time consuming Ottoman styles and even royal palace tradition of Istanbul’s Empire Palace kitchens.

Where to find a taste of unique Ottoman cuisine?

In Istanbul, located in Edirnekapi area and under the Kariye boutique Hotel, Asitane Restaurant  ( Kariye Camii Sokak No: 6 Edirnekapı, Istanbul Tel: (212) 534 8414) is an institution celebrating fine Ottoman dining experience. The hotel is a restored 19th century Ottoman mansion situated next to the famous Church of the Chora above the Golden Horn. The restaurant is located on the lower floor of the hotel and in its romantic garden facing the Church. Asitane in Persian means “main gate” and is one of the 40 names the Ottomans gave to Constantinople after capturing it. No main recipe archives were left behind with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and disintegration of the Imperial Palaces. Looking into the archives of the Topkapı Palace experts came across a circumcision ceremony for the son of Sultan Suleyman in 1539. However instead of recipes, the documents merely recited amounts of ingredients used for certain dishes – like 40 kilograms of meat and 20 kilograms of onion. The culinary specialists at Asitane came up with several recipes from feasts like this through testing and adopting a method of trial and error. Adding honey one time and then another time more vinegar etc. After several tries the recipes were gradually recreated. 

Today Asitane has recreated 200 recipes from three Palaces of the Ottoman (Dolmabahçe, Topkapı and Edirne). The culinary institution also has 200 original recipes of its own, totaling over 400 unique dishes.

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