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Istanbul cuisine
2003 / April

Istanbul's cuisine has a special place in both Turkish and world cuisine, with roots going back to ancient Greece and Rome. Following the Turkish conquest the traditional foodways of the Ottoman sultans and the culinary cultures of the many ethnic communities of the city added new dimensions to its cuisine. As a city straddling the Bosphorus, Istanbul has an abundance of fish and seafood, and where the cooking of these is concerned, Christian and Jewish tradition has been more important than the Muslim. Not only was fish consumed fresh, but also preserved in various ways, by salting, smoking and drying. Meat played an important role in Ottoman cuisine, particularly mutton and lamb, beef being used largely for curing as pastırma. Soups made with meat and chicken stock were often thickened with bulgur and noodles. Rice became widely used from the second half of the 16th century in particular, and pilaf began to be served with roasted and stewed meat dishes of many kinds.

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Istanbul cuisine
2003 / April

Pilaf itself came in many varieties, cooked with ingredients such as tomatoes, almonds, pistachio nuts, currants, aubergines, and chicken. That versatile vegetable aubergine featured in scores of different dishes, and in summer sparks from fires on which aubergines were being grilled were a frequent cause of fires that destroyed wooden houses. Desserts came in innumerable kinds, the main categories being sweet pastries, of which the king was baklava, and puddings made of milk or fruit respectively. Baklava was made at home by housewives for special occasions and sent to be baked at the local bakery. Of the milk puddings, keşkül made with ground almonds and ground rice was served first at meals for guests. On winter evenings gatherings known as 'helva parties' were held, at which the entertainment consisted of music, singing, and games, after which the guests were served helva made with flour or semolina, pickles and afterwards coffee.

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Istanbul cuisine
2003 / April
One of the earliest accounts of Ottoman palace cuisine, dating before the conquest, is that of Bertrandon de la Broquiere, who was a guest at a banquet given for the Milanese ambassador by Sultan Murad II (1421-1451). I quote from Sula Bozis's Istanbul Lezzeti: 'Pilaf with mutton was the main dish. A red leather table cloth was placed in front of the sultan, and over that a silk cloth. The sultan used a silk napkin and was served his food in gold dishes. One of the most famous dishes of court cuisine was pilaf with chickpeas containing one gold chickpea, which was kept by the guest who found it.' The main elements of the Ottoman mosaic, Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Greeks, lived together in Istanbul for centuries, and the cuisine reflects the traditions of all these cultures. The dish known as priet'se stew is one such example. Made with wine by Christians and with vinegar by Muslims, this famous dish is shared by Greek, Armenians, Georgian and Ottoman cuisines. Russian salad, which was invented for the czar of Russia by a French chef called Olivier became popular among the Greeks of Istanbul in particular.
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Istanbul cuisine
2003 / April

The Sephardic Jewish cuisine was characterised by extensive use of fish, vegetables and olive oil, some of which dishes were adopted by other communities, while others, such as leek rissoles and börek filled with aubergine, remained specifically Jewish. The rockling fish was a favourite both with the Jews of Istanbul, who cooked it with sour plums, and with Sultan Abdülhamid II, who enjoyed it fried in butter. Herise, the national dish of the Armenians, is known as keşkek in Anatolia. Another famous Armenian dish is topik, which originated as a Lenten food. Stuffed vineleaves, mussels and mackerel were all enjoyed by Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Stuffed mackerel was known as Forget Me Not, and the stuffing consisted of a large quantity of onions with less rice. Another renowned Armenian dish was stuffed spleen.

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Istanbul cuisine
2003 / April

Much more could be said about Istanbul cuisine, which is so vast in extent that researchers are constantly discovering new details, but I hope that this brief glimpse gives an idea of its extraordinary and exciting diversity.

* Renan Yildirim is a journalist

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