Kitchen Organization, Ceremonial and Celebratory Meals in the Ottoman Empire

Kitchen Organization, Ceremonial and Celebratory Meals in the Ottoman Empire

Doç. Dr. Metin Saip Sürücüoğlu


In the late 13th century the Ottoman State, founded in northwestern Anatolia in the area of the Sakarya River and the valleys of its tributaries, developed rapidly and grew into a great empire. Taking the place of its predecessor the Byzantine Empire and wiping it from the map, the Ottomans became a great political presence as well as the most powerful representatives of the Islamic world. People from regions quite remote from each other, and from different ethnicities ad cultures were gathered together under a single political umbrella(1). Spreading over three continents, the Ottoman Empire thus blended with many different culture and as in every area, so in the areas of food and drink as well, found itself in cultural exchange with them in them.

Parallel to the development and growth of the Ottoman Empire, the cuisine of the palace also showed great development, and the gathering of high-ranking palace residents became one of the most important social activities of the period. This gave rise to the development of extremely rich and delicious dishes which displayed all the creativity and skill of the cooks(2). Sultans and state officials, in order to feed and hold feasts for foreign guests, ambassadors and other palace guests, had their cooks develop certain recipes. Of those working in the palace and mansions, the chefs were among the most beloved; French statesmen asked permission to retain the chefs which Sultan Abdülaziz took with him on his visit to Paris(3). During the rise of the Empire, the Ottomans added the cuisine of every area they conquered to their own cuisine(4). Thus the cuisine of the Ottoman palace and Istanbul in particular became even richer during this period, to reach its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries when the Empire was moving into faster decline(5).

The Organization of the Kitchen and Rules Concerning Food in the Palace Kitchens

Historians have classified the period from the establishment of the Empire until the end of the 16th century the “Classical Period;” the following period lasting until the  18th century the “Post-Classical Period,” and the 19th and 20th centuries, during which various experiments in modernization were undertaken, the “Final Period (1).” The historian Cevdet Paşa said, “If Istanbul had not been conquered, the Empire would not have attained this elevated power.” According to this him, Istanbul was in one of the most ideal geographical locations in the world, and it was natural that whatever state owned it would also have power over other nations. As Napoleon said, “If there were a single world government, its center should be Istanbul. (6).” Clearly, Istanbul has never lost its importance throughout history.

After Fatih Sultan Mehmet (Mehmet the Conqueror) took Istanbul and settled in Topkapı Palace, he also decreed the official etiquette and manners concerning food and eating. For this reason, the kitchen held an important place in palace life. Every day, Topkapı Palace produced food for 1,500-2,000 people, including servants, Janissaries, members of the Divan, civil servants, the Sultan and his family; and on feasts and other special days this number increased threefold(5).

Receptions and feasts given at the Divan for foreign ambassadors followed more or less the same protocol. Large silver trays bearing food brought by palace servants were placed on low tables and the guests ate in small groups. Information on this subject gained from foreign ambassadors and travelers as well as Ottoman sources show that Turkish society included an extremely rich culinary tradition and practice. In addition, weddings, military decorations and celebrations included some of the most brilliant pages of Ottoman history. With their ceremonies, guests, tributes, displays, and food and drink served, these celebrations were a cultural treasure.

This article will address subjects including the organization of the kitchen, rules for meals in the palace, the eating habits and etiquette of the sultans, the eating etiquette for paying of the ulufe (money paid to the Janissaries for fodder), receptions of ambassadors and foreign guests and meetings of the Divan; foods and customs at the palace during the month of Ramadan, and feasts given on the occasion of princes’ circumcisions and other celebrations.

Ottoman Palaces

The palace in which the sultan resided was generally referred to as the Saray_ı Humayun. The most famous of these is Topkapı Palace, today the Topkapı Palace Museum. In1640, Topkapı Palace was home to 40,000 people, but in 1478, during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, only 726 people lived in the palace. In view of the numbers of people living their during the reigns of his successors, we must conclude that Sultan Mehmet’s reign was one of simplicity and frugality(8).

The first palace which Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror constructed after taking Istanbul was the Eski Saray, or “Old Palace.” Begun in 1454 and finished in 1457, this palace was where Beyazit University’s garden is today (8.9). Until the completion of this palace, Mehmet lived in the palace in Edirne. Later the old palace was set aside for the mothers of deceased or dethroned sultans, some of the old wives (cariyes) who had fallen from favor and the sisters of the sultan (8). Construction on the new palace (Topkapı) was begun in 1465, and the first stage of its construction was completed in 1478. The first palace to be built was the Çinili Köşk; the second was the Sırca palace. The Bab-ı Hümayun (1473) was completed only during the last years of Mehmet’s life. The Arz Odası, Divan and Has Oda were built during Mehmet’s reign; the Harem was constructed during later years (8). The Ottoman sultans lived in Topkapı Palace until 1873, when the Dolmabahçe palace was built (10). Thus until the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid, the heart of the Ottoman Empire was Topkapı Palace (3).

Ottoman palaces were generally divided into three sections, known as the Birun, Enderunand Mabeyn (10). The Enderun is the inner section of the palace; the Harem was located in this section. The Birun, known as the Mabeyn-i Hümayun after the Reformation period, consisted of the outer sections of the palace (7). The true name of the Harem is theDarüssaade’, which means “house of happiness.” Those entering from either of its two gates would come to the harem ağaları or harem lords, standing guard. The Ottoman harem was built around the apartment of the sultan and that of the Valide Sultan, his mother (10).

The third gate of Topkapı Palace, the Babüssade, was guarded by white eunuchs. Beyond the gate of the kuşhane, or private kitchen, the management of the harem was in the hands of black eunuch guards (10). Those working in the Palace would enter through the first gate of the Topkapı Palace, the Bab-ı Hümayun, no later than one hour after their dawn prayers (11).

The Babüs-selam is the middle gate of the palace, beyond this gate begins the second section of the palace, a 160×130 m rectangular area. As processions (alay) for bayram and other occasions were held here, it was also known as the Alay Meydanı, or “procession square.” At the right side of this area is the Matbah-ı Amire, or palace kitchen; and at the left were the royal stables (11).

Organization and Food Rules in the Palace Kitchens

The Ottoman palaces in Istanbul and Edirne contained two kitchens, the Matbah-ı Hümayunand the Matbah-ı Amire. The Matbah-ı Hümayun (Imperial Kitchen) was used only for the preparation for the sultan himself. At Topkapı Palace, this kitchen, also known as thekuşhane, was located within the Harem (13). The kitchens of the Palace made up a large and complex institution. The cooks preparing daily meals belonged to several separate classes. At the head of the list, overseeing the food cooked for the sultan, were the kuşçubaşlıs, and next in line were the has mutfak cooks, who cooked for the mother of the sultan as well as the residents of the harem. The third section was the Matbah-ı Amire, which prepared the food for those in the Enderun and the Birun, and anyone else who, for whatever reason, was eating within the palace. In addition to these were approximately 300 more cooks, referred to by their specialties such as tatlıcı (sweet maker), balıkçı (one who prepared fısh),hamurcu (who dealt with dough/baked goods) etc. (12).

The tatlıcıs, or sweet/dessert chefs, comprised a separate class within the palace chefs. This group, responsible for the preparation of halvah, macun (“pastes,”), syrups and other sweets, were known as the hevacıyan-hassa (royal halvah makers) (12). In their kitchen, thehelvahâne, they produced sherbets, preserves and even fragrant soaps. The highest officer in the helvahâne was the helvacıbaşı (head halvah chef). Both Turkish and Western dishes were prepared for great feasts; and only during the late periods were pastries, cake and botansale brought in from outside. In addition to the other chefs at the palace were those whose only duty was to make pilaf (3).

Every section of the kitchen had an aşçıbaşı, or head chef, and the highest ranking of them was known as the baş aşçıbaşı or “head head chef.” All of the kitchen personnel worked under the Matbah Eminliği, or Kitchen Trust.

As we examine the ideal organization of a kitchen today, it is interesting to compare it to the Ottoman kitchen hierarchy during the 14th century. Just as in the Ottoman kitchen, we see a chain of command beginning from the Matbaa Eminliği (Kitchen management – head chef), the Üstüdan-ı Matbah-ı Amire (Subordinate chefs), Matbah-ı Has (Specialty chefs, meat chefs etc.) down to the Matbah-ı Has-şagirt (Apprentices). All apprentices, regardless of the sections in which they worked, fell within the Matbah-ı Has-şagirt category (4).

Following dawn prayers, the stoves, consisting of eight sections, were lit. On some days food was prepared for four to five thousand people (11). The palace personnel ate two meals a day prepared at the palace kitchens, and stayed in apartments within the palace (13).

n the Ottoman Empire, all kitchen accounts were kept in their own separate books (13). These records were kept from day to day in full detail, a book for each month, and contained whatever was eaten and drunk in the palace, what was bought, what was brought, and how much, as well as the bakery/oven costs (8). For example, every Sunday and Thursday, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, through the kiler emini (the person in charge of the pantry/provisions) distributed 150 akçe of bread to the poor, These alms were entered among the palace’s kitchen expenditures (8). In addition, traveling kitchen expenses incurred for official and pleasure trips taken by the sultan were recorded, as were provisions for the Harem and the Enderun.

An officer known as the pazarbaşı (market head) was responsible for acquiring the ingredients for the food to be cooked each day. Each head chef had 60 chefs and 200 assistants in his service. In addition there were people with specific charges: tatlıcıs,tavukcus, yoğurtçus, simitçis, meyvecis (responsible sweets, chicken, yogurt, simit [bread rings], fruit) etc. Food and bread was prepared before the noon prayer, and placed on trays according to where they would be sent, carried by the tablakâr (tray carriers) on their heads. Only the meals for the sultan were prepared in a separate kitchen known as thekuşhane (1).

The third in rank of the kitchen wards, the “cellar/pantry ward,” was established by Sultan Mehmet. The head of this ward was the kilerbaşı or pantry head. His task was to serve the foods prepared for the sultan in the proper way. The duties of the pantry ward staff was to prepare and store the foodstuffs and drink for the sultans and their mothers, the princes and princesses, the head wife and favorite wives, and to light the candles in the palace. After Dolmabahçe Palace was built and became the official residence of the sultans, Sultan Abdülmecid abolished the pantry ward and in its place, had the offices of the Hazine kethüdalığı  (Ministry of the Economy) built (14).

In the old days, two meals were customarily eaten at Ottoman palaces; one in late morning and an evening meal after the evening prayers (11). This tradition was a holdover from the time of Osman Gazi (1299-1324). Osman Gazi would sit to eat in his apartment following the evening prayer, along with however many people were in his apartment. Later, Murat II (1421-1451) established the protocol of ten people to a sofra (15). After the 16th century this custom was abandoned, and palace residents began eating three meals as in the west (11).

As the evening meal was eaten after the early evening prayer, a simple evening “breakfast” type meal called “yatsılık” was prepared for those who were hungry before bed time. This duty fell to the pantry kalfas (attendants), and consisted of foods such as Circassian chicken,haseki pilaf, ekmek paparası (a dish prepared with dry bread and broth) and “palace eggs” (an egg dish cooked with onions) (15).

These kalfas responsible for food service at the palace had from the early days eaten on a mat covered with a leather sofra. Later, during the reign of Mahmut II, they began sitting on low collapsible stools around a copper tray. These kalfas worked as various sorts of attendants; at doors, at the sultan’s hall, as laundry attendants. Each had a specific duty – food service, knocking the door to call the harem lords, sweeping, etc.

Wives at the palaces and mansions were also referred to as kalfas. Following their induction, novice wives would rise in rank and become a kalfa. According to their beauty and experience, these kalfas were sent to the apartments of the sultan, the wife of the sultan, the princes and the sultan’s favorite female servant. The kalfas were divided into three ranks according to their seniority – great, mid and small kalfa. The kalfa responsible for making the sultan’s coffee and caring for the coffee sets was the kahveci usta. The serving of coffee also was carried out with ceremony. The kahveci usta and her helpers bore a heavy work load, especially during the bayrams (the two main feasts of Islam, one following Ramadan and the other commemorating God’s provision of ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son). Their chief duty was to quickly prepare and serve coffee to the wives and princesses coming for bayram visits (10).

The kalfa who oversaw the sultan’s pantries and pantry ware was known as the kilerci usta. She was assisted by a second kilerci and cariyes in her charge. All of the sherbets, fruits and nuts for the sultan were stored in his own pantry. The kilerci usta and çaşnigir usta served the sultan as he was eating (10).

Whatever the season, it was customary in the Ottoman palaces to have hoşaf (a thin compote) at the end of every meal. The hoşaf came to the meal in a copper tankard, and was drunk in the order of rank. First the most senior kalfa took the tankard by the handles and drank, followed by the second and third kalfas. This custom was known as the hoşaf nöbeti (hoşaf turns). It was considered bad manners to get up from the mal before drinkinghoşaf. It was believed that the hoşaf nöbeti would only cease to be practiced as the Day of Judgment neared (15).

Though spoons were used for liquid foods such as soups and hoşafs and other sweets as well as for pilaf, forks and knives began to be used in the Ottoman palace only towards the end of the 19th century. Before their introduction, it was considered appropriate to eat with the three fingers of the right hand. Hand cloths were ready in case the fingertips became soiled. Towels called peşkir were draped over the knees during meals, and the meal service began. After the meal, hands were washed and dried, again in order of rank (5).

It was considered shameful and inconsistent with palace etiquette to slurp soup and drinks, chew with one’s mouth open, grind one’s teeth, wipe ones hands on the sofra, spread bread crumbs around and eat greedily (15). In addition, it was not well looked upon to dive into the food the moment it was brought, take from any part of a dish other directly in front of one, and spill or drip food onto the tray (5).

The trays of food were not completely eaten; they were not sent back to the kitchen completely empty, because this food would feed the servants as well. For this reason the oldest person at the meal would give the signal to the servants to remove the plates. The old wives would show as much care at the sofra as they did in the kitchen, taking great pains to abide by palace etiquette in the laying out of the sofra and the orderly arrangement of the dishes. If there was a guest at the meal, the host would be the first to begin eating, but would not get up from the meal before the guest. It was the duty of the çeşnici and kilercito see to the food service of those invited to the palace. Setting a meal for guests, and serving foods prepared by the kilerci kalfas such as salads and fruit, was the job of theçeşnici kalfas. The çeşnici kalfas waited in attendance to guests from the beginning to the end of the meal (3).

The Dining Etiquette and Habits of the Sultans

The Sultans would arise before dawn and perform their morning prayers, then have breakfast alone in a room by the pantry. The sultan’s noon meal arrived on a tray brought from thekuşhane kitchen. It was the duty of the kilercibaşı to bring this meal, prepare the sofra, remove the covers from the dishes and change the foods. In addition, there were tasters on duty, known as çeşnigir. Dishes served to the sultan were mostly brought on golden platters arranged on a large tray. These platters were also prepared for the sultans’ wives. The tray was wrapped in a cover, and sealed by the kilercibaşı, who tied it with a ribbon. This was a precaution against the poisoning of the sultan and his wives, and was observed until the end. The trays were carried on the heads of the tablakârs, who took them to the harem accompanied by a kilerci. The kilerci walked in front in a dignified and respectful manner without looking right or left, and returned in the same way. They were met at the door to the harem by harem guards (3). The dishes brought for the sultan numbered 24, sometimes as many as 37. The food left after the sultans ate were then taken to the princes and their mothers. According to protocol, they were then given to the odabaşı. Sultans never ate off of silver platters (16).

When a sultan wished to eat, he would tell his kapıağa, or door guard, who would send the order to the sofracı (one responsible for laying the sofra) via a eunuch. He would then bring the foods platter by platter to the sultan’s table. His majesty would sit cross-legged at thesofra and the kapıağa would place a very precious peşkir in order to protect his clothing. A second peşkir, with which he would wipe his mouth and fingers, was placed on his left arm. His food was not cut and prepared as it was for the princes; he did this himself. A sofraspread was laid out in front of him, on which there was always a great variety of fine fresh breads. Two spoons were provided, one for soup and the other sherbets or hoşafs. The dishes were brought in one-by-one and when finished, the plates were removed. No salt was used at the table and there were no appetizers. After meat, baklava or a similar sweet was served without fail. At the end of the meal, he would wash his hands in a golden basin, using a pitcher inlaid with precious stones (17).

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