I know -- the first of the feasting holidays has passed and many of us are even now trying to get back into clothing that once was loose. The number of small containers of leftovers has just about disappeared in my fridge. But really, we know this to be just a lull -- for December comes with the advent of almost continuous feasting until New Year's. Now appears the cookies, the sweets, the filled stockings of St. Nick's day, the fruit cakes soaked in rum, creamy egg nogs, roasted, buttered, and baked dishes in abundance.
But compared to the imperial kitchens of the Turkish Ottoman empire, we are but amateurs in food production and consumption. Jason Goodwin (author of Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire and the utterly wonderful Investigator Yashim series, murder mysteries set in 19thc. Istanbul) has written a delectable article "The Imperial Kitchen" on the history of food, cooking, and dinning in the Ottoman Empire. Every middle eastern fairy tale comes to mind in this astonishing array of meats, fish, fruits, and spices. Here is a description of the imperial kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul:
The imperial kitchen quarters extended well beyond the great domed chambers, each of which was devoted to particular specialties, such as the making of sweets, pickles, and cures. There were pantries and storerooms and offices for the team of clerks who kept meticulous records of what was bought, and how much was spent. Hundreds of men, commanded by sixty specialty chefs, lived and worked here, feeding up to ten thousand people a day. The soup, the pilaf, the helva, the vegetable dishes, meats, breads, pastries were each produced by a master chef, with as many as a hundred apprentices. They had their own dormitories, a fountain, a mosque, and a hammam where they could bathe.
And they had appetites to match:
Stupendous quantities of food came into the palace. In 1723, for example, the imperial household consumed thirty thousand head of beef, sixty thousand of mutton, twenty thousand of veal, ten thousand of kid, 200,000 of fowl, 100,000 pigeons and three thousand turkeys. That was the butcher’s bill. About fifty years earlier, half a million bushels of chickpeas and twelve thousand pounds of salt were delivered to the palace kitchens. The palace tore through food like the city that surrounded it—in 1581 eight ships from Egypt brought grain sufficient to feed the city for a single day.
Goodwin's article offers fascinating insights into the staggering variety of dishes from meats, soups, grilled, fish, pilafs, stuffed everything, as well as the great culinary rivalries with the Greeks and the Persians. There are also recipes, table manners, and anecdotes worthy of the Arabian Nights. But one warning -- if you are not hungry when you start reading this essay, you will be ravenous by the time you finish.I also recommend reading Goodwin's blog which offers much more on food, the history of Turkey, and his fiction.
And as an extra bit of fun...here is a video Goodwin did while doing research in Istanbul. He is speaking with a knife vendor -- learning about the right knife for preparing foods and of course for committing crimes! It's a wonderful little film.