To eat like a Sultan

We’d decided to take an audio guide to the Topkapi palace, but the kiosk in the second courtyard had run out of them, and took a while to get a few back from the return area. The kiosk was near the kitchens, so we decided to walk into them. There are parts of a palace which a minister or sultan would never have set foot in. The kitchen is likely to be one of these. I took perverse pleasure in spending time in this area, first built along with the rest of the palace by sultan Mehmet, and later expanded by Suleiman the Magnificent. It turned out to be an interesting place.

Posters in the kitchens told us how formal and regimented life in the palace was. Sultan Mehmet had laid down very strict rules, including one that said that the sultan has to eat alone. There were also laws about the hierarchy of servants who conveyed the meals from the kitchen to the Sultan. Amazingly no sultan is known to have eaten with another person from 1477 CE until Abdülaziz dined with crown prince Edward VII of England sometime in the 1870s. The result is that the preferences of various sultans can only be inferred from account ledgers. The cooks who worked away in these kitchens with the tall chimneys above them probably passed on details of the sultan’s likes and dislikes orally, because no written recipes have been found.

Although we know little about what the Ottoman sultans ate, on display here one finds a lot about how the sultans ate. The glazed Chinese plate with the 18th century gold Ottoman cover of the featured photo was one of the striking pieces displayed here. The clutch of ewers on display was definitely Ottoman. They were used to wash hands before and after meals. Note the bowl and the towel in the display. Hands had to be placed above the bowl while an attendant poured water over them.

I was struck by this beautiful leaf-shaped plate. If it was Indian it would definitely have held palate cleansers like paan or candied fennel seed. I don’t recall an explanation of what the plate could have been used for in the Topkapi palace. Could it have been sweets: the syrupy lokma, or the forerunner of Turkish delight, macun? The 18th century food carrier brought up a question of who it would have been used by. The population of the palace was large, and some of the lower officials could have been served from this. Food which was taken from the kitchen to the royals was re-heated before serving, if needed. I’m sure that was carried in larger amounts. It would not do to run out of food if the Sultan wanted more.