Ottomans in Europe

Ottomans in Europe

Aylin Öney Tan -
Ottomans in Europe When I first saw the call for papers on H-Turk, a list-serve of a history-focused group of academics, I said to myself, “That’s for me!” The title was “From Kebab to Ćevabčići: Eating Practices in Ottoman Europe.” I was a bit intimidated at the beginning as it was organized by the research group “Ottoman Europe,” a group of historians from Giessen University in Germany. Moreover, the theme was focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, so the paper had to precisely focus on the topic. But at the last minute, I gathered myself together to put in a proposal. Luckily, my topic just fit into the theme and I got through. My title was “Digesting Change? Challenges of Westernization and Aliyah on the Food Traditions of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Community in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Later I would discover that I was going to be the only non-academic person attending the symposium. 

Food-themed symposiums keep popping up here and there; some are more popular and more on the flashy celebrity chef side; some are a tad too academic. Few have a good balance between academia and popularity. The legendary Oxford Symposium of Food & Cookery is now running into its 35th year, which is a perfect mix of serious food studies and quirkiness. Its unique stand comes a bit from British eccentricity, few symposium participants are from academia, but all have a self-nurtured passion for food research. Initially started as seminars with a limited number of attendees, it was transformed into a symposium that was soon to become the must-attend annual gathering of food writers and researchers. Originally founded by Alan Davidson, a former ambassador and author of “The Oxford Companion to Food” and Dr. Theodore Zeldin, the celebrated social historian of France, it was a perfect platform to meet people coming from a diverse array of backgrounds but sharing the passion for food studies. 

When it comes to the circle of historians, some groups can be boringly too stiff, or sometimes amazingly lacking in basic knowledge of gastronomy. Especially in the past, I’ve seen archaeologists not aware that beans were a Colombian exchange food, or unable to interpret a more than obvious link between the past and the present, just because they had no idea of the food ways of the present villagers living in the area. On the other hand at some of the flashy food events (I wouldn’t dare to call them symposiums), they usually do not bother to include a little dosage of knowledge related to food studies. I’ve also noticed that food engineers are not interested one iota in food history, sometimes repeating clichés long proven to be food mythology. Many well-known chefs demonstrate an obvious lack of knowledge on food history, to the extent of sheer ignorance. Few have the will to learn. 

Having attending all sorts of events or symposiums fitting into the above descriptions, I did not know what to accept when I was on my way to Giessen. The Giessen Centre for Eastern Europe Studies is highly history-oriented; their aim is to foster dialogue between Turkish/Ottoman and South-Eastern European Studies on the one hand and research on European history on the other. To my delight, all the attendees had the most interesting topics and they delivered their papers with lots of creativity with the right amount of humor – something not often seen in history-focused groups. Some interesting titles ranged from “Ottoman Food Culture in the Balkan Peninsula through the Exotic Views of 19th-Century Travelers’ Accounts” by Özge Samancı, to controversial topics like “Questioning the Most Strict Dietary Taboo of Islam: The Pork Issue during the Early Republican Period in Turkey” by Burak Onaran or “Rakı Production and Consumption in Istanbul, 19th-20th Centuries” by Christoph Neumann. As put in the commentaries by the eminent historian Bert Fragner from the University of Vienna, 16 papers in just 1.5 days was like breaking the Guinness record; an overwhelming experience of total immersion in late Ottoman Europe history of food. I think I’ll never forget the brilliant talk of the Bulgarian scholar Stefan Detchev on the ubiquitous “šopska salad” titled “The Bulgarian Salads: The Road from a European Innovation to the National Culinary Symbol.” The paper contained the most scrutinizing historical research with all the attention paid to the detail, plus lots of good humor added to the presentation. 

Now, this symposium was in the format of a seminar, just like how the Oxford Symposium had initially started. Thanks to the efforts or organizers Arkadiusz Blaszczyk and Stefan Rohdewald, it was just the right start. I know that they are planning more meetings on the other aspects of Ottoman Europe; the next seminar will be on governance. But I truly hope that the food theme prevails, and I hope there will be consequent meetings on the food topic, eventually emerging into an eminent symposium, focusing on the food history of the Balkans and Anatolia and the Middle East, covering the former Ottoman territory and even reaching beyond the boundaries of the once mighty empire. 

Bite of the Week

Fork of the Week: The forks worth trying this week are going to be at Palais de France in Istanbul. Don’t miss “Journée Pâtisserie et Boulangerie” on Oct. 10, when French and Turkish bread and baking tastes will mingle. Some of the participants are La Petite Maison, Fauchon, Nicole, Neolokal, Five O’clock, Baylan, Pâtisserie de Pera, La vie en Rose, Beyaz Fırın, Art Cafe, La Pâtisserie Lune, Coffee Sapiens, Dem Karaköy, Pare, Butterfly, Shangri-La, Mutlu Dükkan, 240 Derece, Baharat in Gram, Kruvasan, Hacı Bekir, Doğan Kaymaklı, Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, color.full.bakery and The Loli Shop. I’m truly looking forward to the chocolate workshop of Aylin Yazıcıoğlu from Nicole, and of course the éclair workshop of Fauchon. Tickets are available for 120 Turkish Liras for unlimited tasting at

Cork of the Week: I somehow do not have fondness for sweet wines, but I must admit there are moments of exception. This week I had to taste repeatedly Madre of Kayra, together with a group of top sommeliers, and on many occasions it shined like a star. Together with aged kaşar cheese from Cankurtaran in the Spice Bazaar (my favourite cheese shop) and some prune leather and sun-dried apricots, it worked miracles. Another perfect match was with Civan Er’s salt caramel and mahlep pudding with pumpkin sauce at Yeni Lokanta.