Sultan and harem palace cuisine. Modern Turks are very adamant that people distinguish the past from the modern Republic. This is without question true, but Turkish cuisine of today started anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand years ago. Turkish dishes at the time consisted of meals of meat and poultry, prepared by a special chef, that was brought to the Sultan’s special dining table by maids on duty. At this time, palace meals were consumed twice daily. Instead of the breakfasts that we are used to, palace breakfasts of that time consisted of a meal that always had a hearty soup.
Turkish practices at the time consisted of the Sultan sitting cross-legged, with a fine towel draped in front of him to protect his clothing. Another towel was draped on his left arm to serve as a napkin for his fingers and mouth.
All food served to the Sultan was served whole and intact. Foods were served so soft as to negate the need for knives or forks. The Sultan would tear the food with his fingers. During the meal, the Sultan would only consume soup with stewed fruit. For dessert, sherbert was often served. This was the Turkish food culture at the time.
At the dining table of the harem, meals were quite different than at the Sultan’s table. To begin with, the meals for the harem and all attendants, princes, and other important people like Haseki sultans were prepared in a special kitchen. There were special women, called Iqbal, that were designated to work the harem kitchen, and they had to have a child to do so. The order of eating was determined by the sultan. To this day, the Turkish food culture retains some remnants of these customs.
All meals were served in special tinned copper plates which were cleaned and polished shiny. Some of the service wear was even white porcelain. The sultana, wives of sultans, Haseki sultans, treasurer masters and the highest ranking in the harem all had separate dining tables. The Sultan had no connection to these tables or the ceremonies that occurred there. The organizational structure of palace cuisine began at this time, which was institutionalized in Murad II’s period.
It is well worth mentioning that Murad II’s period was from 1404 to 1451. This is significant because the concept of fine dining in Europe was largely believed to have begun with Catherine de Medici when she moved from her native Italy to Paris, France to eventually become queen. Her influence over French cuisine came late in her life, in the late 1500’s. This means the fine dining of the Turkish Sultan’s palaces preceded fine dining in Western Europe by almost 100 years. Turkish cuisine and Turkish dishes preceded most of what we know of European cuisine by a century.
Additionally, it was Georges Auguste Escoffier who brought the Western concept of a kitchen brigade into existence in the middle to late1800’s. This is the organizational structure that most kitchens in the world are structured today. I would argue that again Turkish kitchens, and Turkish dishes with the intricate structuring of the palace kitchen, preceded European structure by over a century. We should remember that when dismissing Turkish food culture as trailing behind European food culture.