A Meal in Itself

Yashim, the Ottoman investigator, is a keen amateur cook. Why?

First of all, cooking allows him time to think.

Secondly, he lives in Istanbul, one of the world’s great culinary capitals.

Istanbul stands at the turnstile of the continents. Asia on one side, Europe on the other. It’s also the lock-keeper, presiding over the narrow waters of the Bosphorus which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, it has a fabulous heritage of good cooking.

Under the Ottomans, the best skills and ingredients that the eastern Mediterranean could offer were funnelled into Istanbul. The skills of the palace cooks and the resources they could demand created a tradition of cookery which Ottoman governors and officials spread throughout the empire: a palace tradition which explains why three great world cuisines are French, Chinese and Turkish.

‘Particularly remarkable about the palace kitchens was their high degree of specialization,’ writes Ayla Algar, in her superb Classical Turkish Cooking. ‘The preparation of soups, kebabs, pilaffs, vegetable dishes, fish, breads, pastries, candy and helva, syrup and jam, drinks such as hosaf, sherbet, and boza, each represented a separate skill to be learned as an apprentice and refined in a lifetime of labor.’

Thousands of people ate in the palace every day. In one year, 1723, the sultan and his ‘household’ consumed 30,000 head of beef, 60,000 of mutton, 20,000 of veal, 10,000 of kid, 200,000 of fowl, 100,000 pigeons and 3,000 turkeys. That was just the butcher’s bill. Fifty years earlier we have it on record that half a million bushels of chickpeas and 12,000 pounds of salt were delivered to the palace kitchens.

Egypt was their granary. Anatolia was their fruit-bowl. The mountain pastures of Europe and Asia provided them with sweet mutton and cheese. Every region had its speciality, like the delicate and delicious trout of Lake Ohrid, on the border between Macedonia and Albania, which were carried overland, live, to Topkapi palace for the sultan’s feasts. The best of everything arrived there in its season.

Ayla Algar quotes a contemporary writer, Samiha Ayverdi, describing the delicacies which arrived in her store-rooms ahead of Ramadan: ‘dates from Baghdad, rice from Egypt, clarified butter from Aleppo and Trabzon, baklava from Gaziantep, dried apricots from Malatya, kasseri cheese from the Balkans, honey from Ankara, caviar from the Black Sea, figs from Izmir, cheese aged in skins from eastern Anatolia.’ Plenty of other delicious ingredients could be garnered closer to home, too, in their season.

Yashim knows what to cook by visiting the market. The simplest meze might be a sliced cucumber with a dash of salt.

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19 responses to “A Meal in Itself

  1. Debbi Conger

    Jason, I have thoroughtly enjoyed not only the History book, but all three of Yashim’s adventures. I am disappointed that I will no longer be going to bed with Yashim (in a reader’s sense) after a three month affair!

    My point is that I would love to see all the recipes that Yashim cooks. You have a few posted, but not all. If there were a list of the recipes with a link to a good cookbook, that would be great also.

    I own a dressage horse and found your comments on how the Ottomans treated their horses very fascinating but there wasn’t much detail. It would be great if Yashim travelled with their calvery on one of his adventures so that I can get to know the secrets of their horsemanship!

    Keep bringing us Yashim’s adventures and teaching us history, culture, and geography!
    Debbi in Seattle, WA

    • thebellinicard

      The book you want to read is The Byerley Turk, the True Story of the First Thoroughbred, by Jeremy James. He’s an astonishingly knowledgable writer and the book is sheer heaven for horse-lovers, telling the most incredible story of the horse which went to war with the Ottoman cavalry and wound up in an English stable. What’s more, its devoted groom came, too. If you read it, please let me know what you think.

  2. Teresita Glaze

    Jason, I also am fascinated by your three Yashim books. I like accurate historical fiction. Your books are a challenge to read which I appreciate.

    A cookbook would be great! I bought some asparagus (the store’s cucumbers were soft – so no yogurt and cucumbers for me). Actually, the first bunch of asparagus was rotten when I got it out of the plastic saran wrap. Ugh! I returned them to the little Mom and Pop store and they said to get another bunch! What to do with them? I have no cookbooks anymore (long story). I fried all of them lightly in olive oil and stood by the stove and ate the WHOLE bunch. There’s got to be a better way to enjoy…

    Teresita Glaze, SD

    • thebellinicard

      Teresita,

      I can’t think of a better way to enjoy asparagus. Only you could grill, broil or roast them, with a scratch of salt and maybe a clove or two of crushed garlic…

      So glad you enjoy the stories.

  3. jason……this was my first read by you……WOW…what a cast of characters…and the cooking was disturbingly real and hunger producing…(and of course..was a time for Yashim to process all the information).
    I don’t understand who the pasha was who died at the end. and it’s driving me crazy. please assist my troubled thoughts to some closure on this…who was it??
    kind regards,
    Diane Tasselmyer
    and now I must read the previous 2 books. hoorah!!

  4. S.E. Schmitt

    Hello Jason,

    Having just finished ‘The Bellini Card’ — and loved it, as I did its predecessors — I wholeheartedly endorse publication of a collection of Yashim’s recipes. Every time (in all three books) I reach a passage describing his meal preparations, my mouth waters! (Definitely not something that typically happens when reading a novel — at least for me.) I’d buy that book in a minute, as I’m sure many of your readers would.

    Please consider it … ?

    S.E. Schmitt
    Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  5. S. Edwards

    Dear Jason,
    I began reading your book ‘The Janissary Tree’ as a mere curiosity, I bought it along with your book ‘Lords of the Horizon’ for my Turkish fiance from Istanbul, what I didn’t expect was to fall in love with Yashim and his cooking. I took direct instructions from the book (with guidance from online turkish cooks as well) and made nearly everything in your books as a surprise for my fiance. Needless to say it was all amazing, and now every week I eagerly look forward to cooking turkish on Wednesdays. I do have to say after finishing all your books, I would love to have a Yashim cookbook, to follow (as well as any other tasty morsels you can find)!
    Thank you so much for creating these amazing books, characters and my new found love affair with artichokes!

    Cheers!!

    • thebellinicard

      Thanks, Seana – for a terrible mome nt I thought you’d fallen for Yashim over your fiance… Anyway, I’m seriously considering the Yashim cookbook. I’ve just finsihed An Evil Eye (out in March/April) and there’s such a good fish stew to go with it. It had a great picnic too, but then I had to cut it for plot reasons. Maybe I should just post it up here?
      all best
      Jason

      • Seana

        Just finished An Evil Eye today and I fully intend to cook the stew tonight 🙂 but I would also like to know what the mackrel dish was called. Such an interesting preparation, not sure if I have the skills to do so,but it sounds amazing. I have to say I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of Yashim’s adventures.

      • thebellinicard

        Good luck, it’s all in the rolling and squeezing… It’s called Uskumru Dolmasi – dolma being the stuffed part. I’ve doen it twice in front of large audiences and the first time, a dream; the second, I split the skin (the light was bad) but it made no real difference to the taste: once you fry or grill the stuffed fish, the skin tightens up anyway.
        You don’t await the next adventure more eagerly than I do. It’s underway.

  6. Patty Thorpe

    What a shame that you had to cut the picnic scene, I love the idea of an Ottoman picnic. Is there any chance that you could post it after the book comes out, rather like the re-instated scenes in a director’s cut?

  7. thebellinicard

    Good idea – or am I mean enough to save the picnic for the next book?

  8. Ashvin Rajan

    Jason!
    So happy that Yashim is back! I read The Janissary Tree, and Yashim drifted out of my life for a bit, but have now begun The Snake Stone, and am gradually getting hooked. I was thinking only earlier today, that after the third Yashim mystery, I wouldn’t see him for a while, but then was pleasantly surprised to find him making a comeback on amazon.com in The Evil Eye. I ordered the book of course!! I suppose you write your mysteries when the time is right. But I do look forward to seeing more of Yashim. I also love your recipes and plan to try them out!

  9. Ashvin Rajan

    Incidentally, for basmati rice, I found that the following cooking method makes it cook just right. You wash the rice in several changes of water, and soak it for half an hour in cold water. Then you use 1 and 1/3 cups of water to 1 cup of rice. Bring to a boil, and immediately turn the heat down to very low, leaving it to cook for 25 minutes very tightly sealed. I find aluminum wrap under the lid of the cooking pot seals it well. Then I cool it and leave it for 5 minutes before opening and fluffing with a fork. I also found that placing cooking pot on a large piece of cork, or something that absorbs the heat from bottom of the pot enables the rice to cook evenly throughout. I’ve done the Indian thing-black mustard seed, or cumin seed and onions/mushrooms cut lengthwise fried in butter along with the rice before cooking-but I think I’ll try your pilaf recipe!

    • thebellinicard

      Hmm. I think we’re on the same wavelength here! I’m going to try your version asap. Incidentally I nowadays agree with an Indian friend who complains that the English are too frightened of esp basmati rice to cook it properly – it’s usually too underdone and gritty, and the whole tight-lid-and-fluffing thing escapes them.
      Hope you enjoy An Evil Eye.

      • Ashvin Rajan

        It has shipped apparently-so it looks I am in for a treat! I think the presoak already softens the rice, but also helps it retain its shape when cooked. But I look forward to trying out those delicate Turkish recipes-so will keep you posted! Hope you have fun in the Southwest on your travels!

  10. Ashvin Rajan

    Hey Jason,
    I chatted with a fellow who is particular about the way he makes his rice, and he recommended getting a cooking pot that was “fully clad”. (This is what such cooking vessels are called-they have three metal layers?). Such a pot ensures a uniform distribution of heat while cooking and delivers superior results especially for rice. Incidentally, I am sympathetic to your attempts at making basmati rice cook “just right”-it is such a delicate rice with a delightful long grain. I did live with many gritty undercooked failures myself until I began tinkering around to get it right. Butter (or vegetable oil) does help seal the moisture in and cook it better.

  11. Elinor Ward

    Dear Jason,
    Your Yashim books are treasures. Finding intricate plots, memorable characters, played out on the stage of a magical world is a true reader’s delight. The icing on the cake, which almost makes my toes curl when I suspect one coming, is the sensual delight of Yashim in the kitchen. Sheer delicousness! I also appreciate the descriptive bits and pieces sprinkled throughout the stories. One of my favorites is the reason the Valide offers for not leaving her ‘harem’ to be with her dying son. And then Yashim’s musing on the difference between ‘French’ living and that of life in Istanbul. Really made me consider the use to which my ‘rooms’ are put. And the ‘how’ of dying. Or, at least, being somewhat incapacitated. I guess modern day Turkey is not the stuff of dreams, but the world of Yashim is….Many thanks for that!
    An amen to the previous calls for a cookbook. Would love to see one containing all the recipes, with the added eye-pleaser of some sketches by
    Pawlewski, enticed by the promise of a fine bottle of Polish potato vodka.
    But you much advise him to nibble dill pickles with his drink as he would then avoid any next morning regrets. That’s a old Russian trick, but don’t tell him that!
    Keep well and keep writing!

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