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.