The Ottoman sweet tooth

The Ottoman sweet tooth

NIKI GAMM ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
The Ottoman sweet tooth The Ottomans are in vogue these days thanks to a growing awareness of just how extraordinary the Empire was. As this return to the past, which started at the beginning of the 1980s, has become more accepted and trendy, more and more people have expressed an interest in Ottoman history and culture. As a result there have been successful television series, classical music events and restaurants specializing in Ottoman cuisine like Asitane and Tuğra Restaurant at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski.

The Ramadan Bayram (also known as Şeker Bayramı - Sugar Bayram), officially begins Aug. 19 and Muslims are expected mimic the Ottomans and serve their guests something sweet. The Ottomans had a big sweet tooth and every meal included a sweet treat. Topkapi Palace even had a separate section in its kitchens just for making sweets.

Anybody who has visited the Topkapı Palace Museum will have toured the kitchens that stand just to the right inside the Second Courtyard. The first kitchens were built when Fatih Sultan Mehmed began the construction of the palace in 1459. At that time Topkapı was known simply as the New Palace and didn’t become Topkapı until the 19th century. The early kitchens were destroyed in a fire in 1574, but were later restored and renovated by Mimar Sinan. Since then some of the buildings have disappeared, especially when the sultans began to live up the Bosphorus after the middle of the 19th century.

At present the kitchens contain many examples of Ottoman kitchen utensils and dishes. There are three kitchens topped by large chimneys on domes – the imperial pantry, the royal kitchen and the confectionary kitchen, known as the helvahane. In the latter, six master chefs and as many as 100 apprentices worked all year long to prepare candies, halva, pastries and syrups, according to the book ‘Topkapı Palace Museum’ by Bilkent Kültür Girişimi Publications. In the same area of the palace there was also a mosque for the confectioners, barracks where they lived, an olive-oil refinery and a soap manufactory.

Honey and pekmez instead of sugar

The Ottomans did not posses sugar, but instead used honey and pekmez, a molasses-like sweetener made from grapes, to sweeten dishes. For centuries sugar was made from sugarcane, a crop that Turkey could not grow as it requires a tropical or semi-tropical climate. Only at the beginning of the 19th century was it discovered that sugar could be made from the sugar beet, which was more suitable for the Turkish climate. However, the first sugar factory didn’t go into operation until the 20th century. As a result, only the palace and the wealthiest members of society could afford to import sugar prior to the factory’s establishment.

The Topkapı kitchens provided food for the people living and working in the palace. It has been estimated that some 4,000 people were fed every day with the number rising to 6,000 during religious holidays like Ramadan. The sultan traditionally ate his meals alone, although there were times when he would invite some of his highest officials or perhaps a favorite wife to join him. The dishes were prepared by the head chef and his assistants taste-tested everything to ensure no poison would reach the sultan’s lips. Estimates vary, but it is believed that anywhere from 60 to 100 different types of dishes were offered to the sultan. They would have been placed on trays and covered with a leather cloth to keep everything warm before they were delivered to the sultan’s chambers. A similar process was followed for the harem. There were several small rooms in the harem that are supposed to have been used as small kitchens to heat food, make coffee and the like.

It was an Ottoman tradition to offer a dish containing honey or jam before eating. A bowl next to the dish would have clean spoons for the person offered the dish was offered to take and dip into the honey or jam. Afterwards he or she would put the dirty spoon into a third bowl. One of the dishes often served during Ramadan is fruit soaked in syrup or hosafi, a throwback to this Ottoman tradition.

Istanbul’s tastes

Nilgun Tatlı in ‘Istanbul’un 100 Lezzeti’ published by Istanbul’s Culture Inc. writes that there were many such fruit dishes prepared in the Ottoman Empire and provides a list of 24 different fruits which were used. There were even special spoons used to eat this treat if the household was a wealthy one. The recipe was actually an easy one and consisted of boiling the fruit in water and sugar until it softened slightly and adding a clove or two. Then it was allowed to cool before serving. Fruit of one sort or another was readily available throughout the year and a very popular ingredient.

Baklava was a part of Turkish cuisine even while the Turks were still in Central Asia. Its importance continued under the Ottomans so it isn’t surprising that the sultan would present trays of baklava to the Janissaries in the middle of the month of Ramadan. The first tray went to the head of the Janissary corps while other trays, each one holding enough baklava for ten people, would be sent to the rest of the Janissaries. If the Janissaries returned any of the baklava it usually meant they weren’t satisfied with their wages. Other sweets would be served to guests as they visited one another during the holiday following Ramadan and as a result this holiday became known as the Sugar Holiday.

Semolina Halva

by Chef Ahmet Kara of Çırağan Palace’s Tuğra Restaurant

The Ottoman sweet tooth


100 gr. butter
200 gr. coarse semolina
50 gr. pine nuts
for the syrup:
2 cups sugar (or 1 cup sugar and 1 cup honey)
3 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 clove
1 cardamom pod
lemon or orange rind (optional)

1. Boil all ingredients for the syrup in a small saucepan for a few minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick, clove and rind. Set the syrup aside but keep warm.

2. In a large pot combine the butter and pine nuts, heat and pour in the semolina when the butter and nuts have gotten hot. Reduce heat to medium, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
The semolina and pine nuts mixture will gradually start to turn gold and then darken in color until it burns. The darker the halva the heavier its taste will be.

3. Pout the syrup mixture into the hot semolina. Avoid burns from spattering by standing well away from the pot.

4. When you have poured all of the syrup into the semolina return the pot to the stovetop and stir until the halva starts to thicken. The final consistency should be that of runny dough.

5. Pour the halva into a pan of your choice (you can use a bundt pan, a loaf pan or even serve it in individual bowls) and let it cool a bit before serving.

6. If desired, dust the halva with ground cinnamon and decorate with almond slivers or ice cream.