Palace Kitchens

The Imperial Kitchens (Matbah-ı Âmire) Serving the Ottoman royal family as well as the thousands of palace employees, the Imperial Kitchens were first built in the time of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-81) and subsequently expanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-66) to respond to the increase in the population of the palace. Following the fire of 1574, the kitchens were repaired and restructured by the architect Sinan. The roof of the Imperial Kitchens consists of ten domes and ten spires. Currently, the kitchens are used to display Ottoman kitchen utensils and other artifacts related to the cuisine of the palace. There are three doors along the long portico of the kitchen section. The first one opens to the Imperial Pantry (Kilâr-ı Âmire), the second one to the Royal Kitchen, and the third one to the Confectionery House (Helvâhâne). As a precautionary measure against any assassination attempts on the sultan, the food prepared in the Imperial Kitchens was first tested by the cooks and then by the royal taster (çâşnîgîr). Some sixty types of food were typically served to the sultan, and as a matter of course, he did not eat them all: some he would only look at, while others he would merely taste, and whatever was left over would be given to other dignitaries to eat, according to the protocol. This process was, in fact, a very old tradition in the East as well as among the Turks.

DESSERTS OF THE PALACE

In the final division of the Imperial Kitchens, the Confectionery House, there was an entire company of workers including six master chefs and up to one hundred apprentices whose sole duty was to prepare candies, halva, pastries, and syrups. In the winter, they would make the gumlike candy called “macun” by using sugars and flavours obtained from roses, musk, poppies, galangal root (Alpinia officinarum), Indonesian long peppers (Piper longum), and various other spices.  The “macun” thus prepared would then be offered to the sultan, the members of the Imperial Council, and the officials of the Inner Palace. Perhaps the most famous confections prepared in this kitchen were lokma (a fried-dough pastry soaked in syrup or honey and cinnamon) and Noah’s pudding, known as “aşure” in Turkish. During Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, aşure with honey, sugar, and strained musk would be prepared with the latter being made especially for the sultan and the inhabitants of the Harem.

THE SULTAN DINED ALONE

The statutes of laws (kanûnnâme) set forth by Sultan Mehmed II between 1477 and 1481, in addition to establishing the foundations of the Ottoman Empire’s administrative, legal, penal, fiscal, and military organization, also determined the rules for table manners. Prior to this, sultans not only used to dine together with their viziers but were also required to eat a ceremonial meal in the presence of their troops. At the beginning of his reign, Mehmed II is known to have dined together with his scholars; however, in his statute of laws, he abolished the custom of the sultan’s eating in the presence of others. This rule was strictly adhered to until the time of Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861-76), who once dined together with the Crown Prince Edward (VII) of the United Kingdom. Various explanations have been offered as to why Mehmed II established this rule, among them the arguments that he thought no one worthy of sharing his company, that he feared being poisoned, and that one of the scholars with whom he had used to dine had raised an argument as to who should sit to the sultan’s right and who to his left. But whatever the reason for the decision, it certainly has had important consequences for historians as the items on the sultan’s personal menu can only be inferred from the account ledgers of the Imperial Kitchens. Judging from these ledgers alone, it appears that Mehmed II’s personal preferences included caviar, roe, shrimp and oysters. However, there are more extensive records of the food served to ambassadors, which can be seen in ambassadorial records and travel accounts. Among the dishes served at the banquets given to ambassadors were lamb and chicken kebabs, pigeons roasted in butter, various soups, various types of “börek” (a type of unsweetened baked or fried filled pastry) and pilaf, vegetable stews, milk puddings and sweet pastries. As dessert, the filo-based baklava (which was created in the Imperial Kitchens by means of a refinement of the layered doughs of Central Asian tradition) was also common. At the end of the meal sherbet was served. Sherbet is an aromatic cooled beverage prepared by combining honey- or sugar-sweetened ice with the fragrant petals of roses, violets, oranges, lemons, and jasmine, sometimes with the addition of verjuice to impart a slightly sour flavour. The snow and ice used in the preparation of sherbet was provided by the city’s merchants, who brought it in from the mountains around Mudanya and Bursa. Olive oil-based dishes such as “imambayıldı” (braised eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic, and tomatoes) and “dolma” were products of the second half of the 18th century at the earliest. Prior to this, Turks did not consume olive oil as food, preferring suet or butter instead.