Ottoman Palace Cuisine of the Classical Period

Turkish cuisine is largely the heritage of Ottoman cuisine, which can be described as a fusion and refinement of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines. Turkish cuisine also influenced these cuisines and other neighbouring cuisines, as well as western European recipes. The Ottomans fused various culinary traditions of their realm with influences from Middle Eastern cuisines, along with traditional Turkic elements from Central Asia such as yogurt. The following article focuses on Ottoman Palace cuisine of the classical period in the 15th-17th centuries mentioning certain cuisine favourites in the palace kitchen.

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Arif Bilgin*

Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Organization of the Kitchen and the Structure of Personnel

3. Food Supply for the Palace

4. Food Culture of the Palace

4.1. General Features
4.2. Bread
4.3. Dishes
4.4. Sweets and Pickles
4.5. Drinks

5. Conclusion

6. Further reading

6.1. Articles on food, agriculture, cuisine and cookery published on
6.2. Publications and online resources on the Islamic cuisine


Note of the editor

This article was first published in Turk Mutfagi (Turkish Cuisine), edited by Arif Bilgin-Ozge Samanci, Ankara: Kultur ve Turizm Bakanligi Yayinlari, 2008 (read our review of the book: Turkish Cuisine: A Book Review). We are grateful to Dr. Arif Bilgin, author of the article and to the publishers of the book, the Turkish Ministry of Culture, for allowing publication. The version we publish was edited anew, and it was augmented with the final section containing further resources on Ottoman, Turkish and Islamic cuisines.


1. Introduction

Palace cuisine is the culmination of Ottoman cuisine in terms of organization, refinement of palate and food culture. The term 'Ottoman cuisine' must refer to kitchen combinations from a substantially broad regional range. In other words, the culinary culture of each of the Ottoman domains must be included within this concept. Considerable portions of the Arabic world, North Africa, the Balkans, Northern Black Sea, Anatolia, Aegean Isles, the Caucasus and the Persian zone must be included in this frame. Ottoman cuisine reflects a format derived from aspects of the cultures belonging to this vast geography, yet shaped according by the Turkish subjects' cultural richness and habits.

We can cite three main factors contributing to the creation of Ottoman cuisine in general and palace cuisine in particular.

1. Habits inherited from Central Asia.: The continuation of meat and milk based eating habits of Turks (generated by their Central Asian lifestyles and caused by the peculiarity of the geography) during the Ottoman period clearly indicates its longevity.

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Figure 1: Sherbet Makers (Şerbetçiler), from Surnâme-i Hümayun, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, MS H. 1344, folio 238a.

2. The influence of Arabic and Persian cultures during the migrations: During the period of migration to Anatolia, Turks benefited from the eating habits and foods of the countries where they stayed. Adopted elements of Persian and Arabian cultures during this process remained in the Ottoman culinary culture up to the 19th Century. The most significant evidence indicating this interaction are Arabic or Persian dishes and food product names. Nonetheless, it is known that the food picked up from these two cultural basins was changed in content and adapted to the Turkish palate.

3. Acquaintance with Anatolian staples or the influence of the Byzantine cuisine: In the 15th century, the Ottomans preferred fruit, vegetables and greens in their diet more than ever. Neither in Central Asia nor during the period of the Great Seljuk's had they consumed such abundant fresh produce. Thus, it would not be wrong to assume that the Turks immediately started consuming new produce that had recently become available to them.

However, the primary concern here is, did Turks learn to utilize these products by themselves or did they receive help in this from Byzantine Greeks? Although, we encounter elements in the Turkish kitchen showing us the Byzantine effect [1], unfortunately we are concrete information is not available to show us the areas and the dimensions of this mutual effect.

In this study, we are mainly going to explore three significant subjects in the Ottoman palace kitchen: organization, provisioning and food culture [2].

2. The Organization of the Kitchen and the Structure of Personnel

Since we do not have sufficient information about the organization of the kitchens in the palaces of Bursa and Edirne, we are going to discuss only the kitchen organization of Topkapi Palace, with the following exception: until the reign of Murad II the çaşnigirs (tasters) provided a food service to the Ottoman Sultans. During this next period, this service was transferred to a newly established foundation of head butlership (kilercibaşilik) and the range of services provided by çaşnigirs was limited to external services (such as food presentation for the members of the Court) [3]. In the early period, the palace catering groups who provided a food service were not limited to servants and butlers as a considerable number of cooking groups also existed. Sources of the era yield almost no information regarding the said class and kitchen organization.

It has become obvious that the palace kitchen organization known as Matbah-i Âmire Emâneti (The Office of Imperial Kitchen Superintendent) was established for the first time during Mehmed II's period in the Topkapi Palace. Then as we understand from its name, Matbah-i Âmire was an administrative unit run by an emîn (superintendent). These superintendents had the rank of Imperial Court Masters (Hâcegân-i Divan-i Hümayun) and they worked under a chief known, as iç kilercibaşi (inner butler) who had authority to give submissions to the sultans. The inner butler was a chief of the Kiler Odasi (Office of Pantry) in the Enderun (Inner Apartments) and at the same time, he oversaw the entire kitchen personnel. He authorised employing new personnel, increasing salaries and he would decide on the promotion of personnel, which became necessary when other staff were promoted or left. However, responsibility for the disciplining of personnel and implementation of penal sanctions was left to the superintendents and their assistants.

The duties of the kitchen superintendent were not too limited. He was obliged to regularly provide the palace kitchens' foodstuffs and to organize distribution of the provisions. The superintendent, in this role, with the support of his assistants, used to determine the quantity of consumables and to issue necessary orders accordingly. Additionally, supervising the costs and revenue of the premises was the duty of superintendent. He was also in charge of receiving the treasury allotment and with this money, he used to do the necessary procurement and make payments to the concerned parties for other expenses. Moreover, every superintendent, for each Hegira year he was in office was obliged to explain his expenditure to the revenue office. Therefore, he had to register the costs and revenue of his premises in the ledgers every year.

Kitchen superintendents were often selected from among the çaşnigir, çavuş (palace guards) and müteferrika (one of the elite corps of the Imperial Household) of the Dergâh-i Âlî (Sultans Court). When they were nominated, they initially received a considerable increase in their salaries, as well as having the allowance of a sinecure fief fee along with many other benefits.

The Sultan's Kitchen clerk (kâtib-i Matbah-i Âmire) and chief cook (ser-tabbâhîn-i hassa) were attendants (or assistants) of the Superintendent and assisted him with administrative affairs [4]. In the palace kitchens, a large number of clerks were employed. Of these, the most important ones were the Sultan's Kitchen clerk. Others were storehouse clerks, tallying provisions going in and out of the palace storehouse (Kilâr-i Amire).

The clerks of the Sultan's Kitchen who were also known as the head scribe's clerks, were generally nominated from of kitchen while storehouse clerks were chosen from the butlers. The most important task of the clerks of the Sultan's Kitchen was to keep their balance sheet accounts. Clerks also carried out the task of controlling the entire accounts of the trust.

Figure 2: View of Topkapi Palace from the sea. (Source: L'Illustration: Journal universel, Tome: LXVII, Paris 1876; Coşkun Yilmaz Archive).

The chief cook who was the master (üstad) and head of the Private Kitchen (Matbah-i Has) was at the same time the chief officer of the entire kitchen personnel. Chief cooks, in a way, were acting as steward (kethudâ). The Chief cooks' other responsibilities, besides overseeing kitchen staff, were controlling the cooking of meals, taking delivery of kitchen personnel wages and apparel, and handling and keeping the tableware etc.

The Sultan's Kitchen was organized into several units and service branches. The most significant two units of the Office of the Kitchen Superintendent were the kitchens where food for the palace household was prepared and the Helvahâne (Confectionery Kitchen) buildings, which covered the entire right side of the second courtyard and consisted of ten different sections. Eight of them were kitchen buildings named according to the class they served, such as Has (Privates), Divân (Court), Aǧalar (Elders) etc. The other two sections were assigned to the Confectionery Kitchen. While the palace household food was prepared in the kitchens, an assortment of sweets, jams and juices like compotes and syrups, pastes and pickles were prepared in the Confectionery Kitchen.

In the third courtyard of the palace, there was a separate kitchen, called a Kuşhâne. Although not belonging to the Office of the Kitchen Superintendent this kitchen, where skilful chefs of the Sultan's Kitchen worked, provided a catering service to the sultan and prominent members of the Inner Apartments. Pageboys belonging to the office of pantry also served in this kitchen. The Kuşhane might also have served the two meals for the kitchens belonging to the Office of Superintendent.

Cooks working in the palace kitchens were divided into three classes; üstâd (master), halîfe (headman) and şâkird (apprentice). Apprentices were further divided into smaller sections and were also split amongst themselves into squads. At the head of each squad was assigned a captain. Above all the cooks was a chief cook who supervised the entire Trust staff. Overseeing the confectioners, who were similarly organized, was a ser-halvaciyân-i hassa (head of the confectioners).

Other units associated with the Office of Superintendent were: a storehouse where provisions were stored (Kilâr-i Âmire); ovens (Firin-i Has and Firin-i Harcî) where bread and other bakery items were cooked; a butchery (kârhâne-i kassâbîn) where sheep and fowl purchased for the palace were slaughtered and prepared; a poultry workshop (kârhâne-i mâkiyân); a yogurt-makers workshop (kârhâne-i mastgerân) where milk and dairy products were produced; a paraffin workshop (kârhâne-i şem‘gerân) where the palace's candle requirements were met; a greens house (sebzehâne) where purchased vegetables were cleaned and prepared ready for cooking; a freshwater supplier (sakahâne) who provided water to the palace kitchens; a compound (mirî mandira) where cattle belonging to the palace were cared for and which produced clarified butter and cheese from their milk; and a workshop located in Bursa (simid kârhânesi) which was responsible for the purchasing of wheat from the Southern Marmara region and milling and transporting it to the palace. All these groups working in this unit adopted names corresponding to the range of their services: pantry men (kilâriyân), bakers (habbâzîn), butchers (kassâbîn), and poultry-men (mâkiyâniyân).

Included among the Office of Superintendent employees were; seasonally employed snow and icemen (buzcuyân), healing herb pickers (aşşâbân), unofficial serving petty officers (müteferrikagân), low salaried staff (eytâm) whose fathers were former chief cooks and a wheat-pounder from the Beykoz mill who ground wheat for cooking. Finally, it should be mentioned that the bakery branch — one of the service groups whose responsibility was to purchase the produce and prepare it according to their branches — was divided into three subgroups as cooks (pişiriciyân), dough mixers (hamurgerân) and sifters (elekçiyân).

Palace kitchen personnel in the beginning were originally vassals (gulâm). That is, they were non-Muslim recruits. They had been recruited as conscript pages, then at the request of the chief pantry man Chief Commander of the Janissaries, were assigned to the service of Sultan's Kitchen. After serving as conscript pages for a while, they were transferred to one of kitchen units as footmen. But the basis of vassal origin personnel begun to change by the 16th century. In this century, relatives of kitchen personnel started to get employment in the kitchens.

Figure 3: Palace Kitchens: Kitchen alleyway from Halva Kitchen to Royal Storeroom.

When we look at the assignment records of the era we can see cooks' sons (üstâd oǧlanlari), siblings of the vassals (kul karindaşlari), brothers of headmen and apprentices. This situation indicates a parallelism with Metin Kunt's thesis about the change of the vassal structure of governor-generals and sanjak governors by the 16th century. If the attitude change in the appointments of high level bureaucrats also reflected on kitchen staff, who used to be considered as low level public servants, then we can reach the conclusion that the structure of vassal origin recruitment begun to break down by the 16th century and staff of Muslim origin begun to take the place of vassals.

Reports of cooks from the Bolu region entering and dominating the palace kitchen during the reign of Mehmed II reign are baseless. The running of the palace kitchen based on conscript pages, master boys and vassal siblings continued until the 18th century. Therefore, an influx of urban dwellers into palace kitchens did not occur until this period. The first influx into the palace kitchens took place during the Damat İbrahim Pasha Period with the employment of cooks from the Nevşehir region. The domination of Pasha's fellow townsmen in most of the palace as well as in the kitchens continued until the abolishment of the Janissary corps. The friendship of cooks from the Nevşehir region with the Janissaries had reached a level that worried the palace lords, and after the abolition of the corps, fear of the lords resulted in the removal of these cooks from their posts. The heavy employment of cooks from the Bolu region coincides with this period [5]. The preference for cooks from Bolu over kitchen personnel from the Nevşehir region also proves that cooks from Bolu had the reputation of being excellent cooks — at least in Istanbul.

The number of palace kitchen employees increased continuously in line with the expansion of the state. However, we should mention that the increase in staff numbers in the second half of the 16th century suggest staff numbers were in excess of requirement. When we compare the increase in the consumption of staple foods and the increase in the number of personnel, we can see that the latter was much higher. Such a comparison is based on the assumption that the amount of consumption is in line with the number of persons served. Consequently, we can easily say that there was no correlation between the increase in the personnel giving service and the increase of people receiving that service. As a matter of fact, writers of the era, complain about the excess of kitchen personnel [6]. This criticism was probably noted because in 1594 Ferhad Pasha reduced the number of personnel by paying compensation to 136 pantry men, which had been 286 in total [7]. These reductions continued into the first half of the 17th century.

The following facts illustrate the changes mentioned above: The number of kitchen staff was around 100 during the reign of Mehmed II (1451-1481) and during the final years of reign of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) this number had reached 160; at the beginning of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent this number exceeded 250 and towards the final years of his reign this number reached 500; on the accession to the throne of Selim II (1566) together with those who came from the prince's sancak of Manisa, the number of staff had reached 600; during the final years of Murad III (1574-1595) staff numbers exceeded 1000; during the period between the throne of Mehmed III (1595-1603) and the middle of 17th century, in a space of about 60 years a 30% increase brought numbers into the 1300s. Although the numbers of permanent kitchen personnel was limited, we must not forget the existence of young conscript pages (acemi oǧlan) who were not included in this number since they were not registered as permanent. Towards the end of the 16th century, it is likely that more than 200 young conscript pages were employed in the kitchens and associated premises.

Figure 4: Aşçilar Mescidi (Masjid of Cooks). Wooden building and kitchen chimneys.

Figure 5: The Superintendent of the Kitchen Halil Efendi, who was promoted to Royal wedding feasts superintendent. (Source: Surnâme-i Vehbi, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, MS H. 3593, folio 12b).

In the second half of the 17th century, there were no large-scale changes in the numbers of personnel, and they had even reduced in number. In 1660, the number of staff went up to 1370 and in 1665 increased to 1372 but then during the last quarter of the century, it went down to 1253 and, up to the beginning of the 18th century, it remained at the same level.

The most important income for the workers of the Sultan's Kitchen was their quarterly salary (ulûfe). Like every military class member, kitchen personnel received their salaries according to a calculation of their daily wages. The amounts of daily wages were determined according to stature, seniority, achievement and quality of the work performed. After the superintendent and clerk, the chief cook received the highest daily wages. Excepting the salaries of the superintendent and clerk who received their salary from another office, the daily wages of personnel in 1478 were between half a silver coin (akça) and 10 silver coins; in 1631 that changed to being between 2 silver coins and 55 silver coins, with the chief cook receiving the former and the apprentice the latter. Upon entering a new career, the apprentice received half a silver coin in the 15th century but by the 16th century, this amount had increased to 1 silver coin and at the end of the century it increased to 2 silver coins. Sometimes two different people who were doing the same job could have an almost 18-fold salary difference but resentment never occurred between them. The reason for this is that the understanding of the concept of 'the more you work the more you get' was the basis of Ottoman personnel management so that every worker, regardless of his years in service, had the opportunity to increase his daily wage by performing "exceptional service".

The palace kitchen personnel mostly wore underwear and long shirts made out of linen with sashes around their waists and conical hats on their heads. In winter seasons, senior personnel wore winter green clothes made out of broadcloth while other personnel wore dark blue. In every Erbaîn [8], the chief cook distributed these garments, which were made in Thessaloniki, to his staff.

During the reign of Mehmed II assistant cooks wore blue coloured dresses (câme-i kebûd), shirts (pîrehen), underwear (zîr-câme) and conical hats (külâh), sashes (kuşak) and baggy trousers (çakşir) made from Bursaian velvet and shoes (pabuç). In later outfit records, the last four are mentioned. During the reign of Sultan Bayezid II in addition to the underwear and shirts, which were distributed to all staff, a shoulder shawl made out of lordin broadcloth for the administrators of the catering groups, a raincoat (bârânî) for the middle class personnel and