Ottomanesque Trend in Tables

Ottomanesque Trend in Tables

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Ottomanesque Trend in Tables

There is no question that there is an augmenting quest for anything Ottoman in the recent years. Thanks to historical soap operas on TV channels, everything with an Ottoman tag sells, more so in the Ramadan period. With the raging hype for Ottoman revivalism, almost all high-class restaurants and hotels try to feature an Ottoman concept in their kitchen, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. 

What exactly is Ottoman cooking, what is its difference from the traditional food in Turkey? The answer is blurry; most people take it as dishes that no longer exist, belonging to a bygone past, and definitely related to the palace. Even if a dish that is recorded in the archives of the Topkapı Palace is still made in homes or in corner eateries such as the yaprak sarma (wrapped vine leaves) or the ubiquitous karnıyarık (split-belly mincemeat stuffed aubergines), it won’t count as Ottoman. The perception is that it must be historically exotic, like stuffed melons, or lamb neck with apricots; better if it has an incomprehensible name in today’s Turkish, like tuffahiye, and apples stuffed with meat. Nobody seems to think Ottoman in terms of geography, stretching the concept to former Ottoman lands, like the Balkans or the Middle East, as far as Hungary, or Egypt, here the cuisines of several countries have a strong Ottoman legacy. Dr. Özge Samancı, an expert historian on Ottoman cookery, says she usually uses the term to refer to court cuisine in Istanbul, but also points to the fact that all countries in the former Ottoman territory share certain common tastes to some extent; but at the same time, she mentions that there are also regional differences within the territories of old Ottoman lands. 

Though it is always the geography that rules in a region’s cookery, there were various parameters diffusing the culinary culture across the empire, such as the shared governing authority and administrative system, the borderless trade, the resettlement of populations etc. For example, the soup kitchens, as part of the charitable imaret system attached to mosque complexes, consistently served similar food across all the Ottoman states, regardless of the local cookery. This carried the Istanbulite cuisine developed around the court, to remote corners of the Ottoman world. However, when it comes to precision, written documents on dishes are scarce, even if the ingredients are mentioned, recipes as we know today are practically non-existent in Ottoman archives. Yet, in recent years, a number of scholars, food researchers and chefs have successfully recreated Ottoman recipes adjusted to contemporary tastes, though there is room for a bit of imagination or interpretation; some dishes being close to authentic, some remaining as adaptive interpretations to contemporary restaurant kitchens. 

In an exclusive dinner last week, Dr. Samancı explained the intricacies of Ottoman gastronomy, while the guests savored finely crafted dishes prepared by Chef Sezai Erdoğan from the menu of Tuğra Restaurant, Çırağan Kempinski. Many other restaurants offer Ottoman fare, but few can be considered classics, such as the Asitane Restaurant next to the Kariye Mosque near the city walls, or Feriye Restaurant on the sea front; both being pioneers in the Ottoman revival long before the TV fads, the latter having Chef Aydın Demir in charge, who is also one of the first to put faith in Ottoman food. However, it is not easy to try to survive old style cooking. It is not only time consuming, but also getting the right ingredients nowadays that gets harder and harder. All mentioned restaurants try to source their ingredients from original sources or small artisanal producers. Chef Erdoğan says: “Using regional products is vital for the taste of the food and it’s my top priority,” adding that he gets his rice from Gönen, and lamb from Balıkesir; they even had their Amasya apples carried with mules from remote villages. 

If setting Ottomanesque tables is the trend, hopefully it will lead to a revival in getting the ingredients of the bygone times. Only then we can talk about a true revivalism, otherwise our tables will remain like the theatre settings of the Ottoman soap operas; starred chefs including Alain Ducasse, Roger Verge, Michel Troisgros and Marc Meneau during a rotating two-month schedule of guest chefs. Chef Erdoğan today is in charge of the food operation of the landmark hotel and its four restaurants, two bars and six kitchens, which together serve 313 accommodation rooms and 20 function rooms as well as an outside catering operation. 

“Using regional products is vital for the taste of the food, and it is one of my top priorities. We get our legumes from villager women and farmers. We never buy packaged rice, our rice comes from Gönen, of the city of Balıkesir, and we only buy the rice produced this year. Our apples are carried on mules in Amasya, in the Black Sea region, and sent to us”, the chef added. He has always placed a high level of importance on both the quality of produce and its taste.

Fork of the Week:

You can easily set your own Ottoman table; all you need is a good set of recipes. Unfortunately books in English are scarce, the one of Özge Samancı and Sharon Croxford on 19th Century Ottoman Recipes is out of print, but still can be found in second hand bookshops; however, do look for “500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine” by Marianna Yerasimos. Another book worth mentioning is “Turkish Cuisine” by Arif Bilgin and Özge Samancı, including recipes, but mainly having extensive essays on the history of Turkish cookery.  

Cork of the Week:

Erenköy şerbet is a very small producer that makes old style sherbets which comes in a wide range of flavors: Herbal and flowery lavender or rose; fruity quince, pomegranate; mandarin; spicy lohusa; or exotic tangy tamarind. Call creator/owner Mustafa Pektaş +90 533 712 0169 for orders.