The Ottoman Empire and the Food We Enjoy Today

The Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 was the driving force on the world stage. Emerging from the ashes of the Seljuk Empire, the first Ottoman leader was Osman I. He went on to create an empire that challenged European rule itself. The collapse of Constantinople, where the Ottoman Empire destroyed the last traces of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, is the most important siege in history. At its peak glory,  the Ottoman Empire reached its largest scale, threatening Vienna, the European capital of Habsburg. Extending over three continents, it stretched from the Balkans in southeastern Europe across North Africa, Central Asia, Anatolia and Arabia. 

Then began the long-term decline of the Ottoman Empire, which failed to occupy Vienna, but the fact that they could reach it is a testament to the persistence and skill of the dynasty. However, they offer more than a story of conquest and fight. The Ottoman Empire nurtured a unique, vibrant culinary tradition that still lives on in the region, and introduced many of the cuisines enjoyed around the world today.

From a culinary point of view, they introduced the two biggest elements that define Ottoman cuisine: agriculture and Islam. The Seljuk tribe leaves the grazing and nomadic trails of livestock to include rice, wheat, barley, millet, labessi (often used as animal feed), apples, grapes and watermelons. They had begun to grow many essential crops and not only fruits. Livestock, unlike meat, was more important to labour and milk and often accounted for the mutton deficiency. Second, Islam. Seljuks introduced Islam to Anatolia, which provided many rigorous guidelines on what can and cannot be eaten. The most notable of these are pork, alcohol, and certain kinds of seafood, which according to the Koran are inedible. This would go on to have a significant impact on the type of food the Ottoman Empire ate.

The Ottoman Empire is probably the only empire in history that could challenge France for bread. Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi mentioned in his book Seyahatnâme, published in 1848, that there were 46 different types of bread in the empire. However, many of these types of bread were much longer than his record, and bread was a necessity of the Ottoman Empire’s diet. It’s to enjoy two meals of the day, especially with the stew and soup that the Empire is famous for, as well as numerous spreads. It contained chickpeas, cinnamon and pine nuts, but one of the spreads is considered to be the ancestor of modern hummus. In the case of pastries, the Ottoman favourite was Börek. Small, peeling, salty cookies that can be set in several flavours, but generally include meat, cheese and vegetables and dried fruits.

Börek-Image source

It is not clear why the amount of fish available for consumption increased significantly after the fall of Constantinople, although, one possible reason was that the Ottoman Empire was able to take full advantage of the narrow Bosphorus Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Ottoman fishing probably had its renaissance by overthrowing the Italian city-states that completely dominated the Bosphorus and supported Constantinople. 

Seafood, of course, played an important role, but in many Ottoman meals, meat was the star of the show. The chicken was an Ottoman favourite, but the lamb was another indisputable staple of the Ottoman diet. Meat is roasted whole or charred kebab. This is very popular today. Although able to be placed in the Börek mentioned earlier, the Ottoman enjoyed all of the filled and packaged foods. Dolma is a stuffed grape leaf dish that generally contains vegetables and meat from different regions. Sarma generally used bulgur minced wheat wrapped in cabbage leaves. One of the most famous stories about the kebab is the story of Seljuks, the predecessor of the Ottoman Empire. Supposedly, they skewered meat on a sword and grilled it on fire to create a potential origin for kebabs. This was confirmed by Byzantine records at the time, but incidentally, Seljuks and his successors to Ottoman may not have invented kebab.

Neither they nor their ancestors invented kebabs, but the sultan’s palace chefs made many dishes, perhaps perfecting a few themselves. Unfortunately, historians are still struggling to match exactly what they ate because of the strict secrecy of the Ottoman Sultan’s palace cuisine. Topkapi Palace alone employs more than 1,000 people, and each chef specializes in one specific aspect of intricate Ottoman cuisine. After the collapse of the empire, most of these chefs left Istanbul and took their knowledge with them, leaving no record of their craft. But the little surviving knowledge we have suggests a rich and decadent world of desserts made especially for the palette of the Sultan and his most faithful devotees.

Baklava is a multi-layered confectionery dessert mixed with honey and a matte layer. Even today, it is considered to be the origin of strudel worldwide. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Baklava was a desert only for the elite of Ottoman society. The recipe was carefully protected inside the walls of the palace.  Another notable example of the Ottoman Desert with us today is the sorbet. The Ottoman variant, mixed with water, is closer to sugar syrup than the flour we know today. It was usually a sweet palate cleanser that could be eaten after a meal.

Baklava-Image Source

It is difficult to believe that the same empire that conquered one of the greatest cities in history and crushed the last Romans was the same one that suffered a series of shameful defeats, becoming known as the sick in Europe. World War I eventually led to its collapse both internally and externally. However, their food legacy cannot be underestimated. Turkish cuisine, the greatest successor to both the history and food of the Ottoman Empire, is considered one of the three fantastic world cuisines, along with French and Chinese cuisine. Even if the empire does not exist any longer, their food is surely ruling peoples’ hearts!

-Ramita Misra 

SY.BSc Economics

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