Imperial kitchen of Topkapi Palace: Inside the vast spread of medieval cuisine

Food Contributor
Imperial kitchen
Topkapi Palace as seen from the Bosporus, with the old city walls beneath. © Elizabeth Coughlan |

“A dagger and the imperial kitchen”, I said. My Turkish friend Hakan Gulseven was stunned for a moment. September, 2005. On a sparkling golden day, we were standing at a jetty in Sarayburnu on the dazzling blue Bosporus. Istanbul. Our next destination: Topkapi Saray. Hakan was trying to find out from me what attracted me the most in this huge Ottoman Palace.

Grandeur of Imperial Kitchen

The second largest palace in the world, Topkapi was the residence of the Ottoman emperors between 1478 and 1853. He couldn’t believe for a moment that the imperial kitchen would attract me more than so many other exhibitions, such as those of royal jewelry, or medieval armory, or the legendary harem. But then he didn’t know my special interest in ancient and medieval imperial cuisine around the world, and more surprisingly, he wasn’t even aware of the phenomenal grandeur of the Ottoman imperial kitchen.

As we moved from one hall of the kitchen to another, I was transported to another world. The first thing which struck me is that the word ‘kitchen’ is so inadequate for this mindboggling arrangement. No wonder many sections of this kitchen were called ‘Karhane’ in Turkish, a term clearly derived from Persian ‘Karkhaneh’, meaning a factory or workshop. The Topkapi kitchen was an intricate combination of several different sections, each of which worked in close tandem with the others, like a huge precision-clock. Some these major sections included: the Has, which served food to the emperor’s close family’s table. Diwan was for the food of the imperial staff members. The Agalar supplied old people’s food. One kitchen prepared only yogurts: Karhane Mastgeran. The Sherbetchiller, similarly, churned out only non-alcoholic beverages. The Halwahane was for sweetmeats. So on and so forth.

Bulk of cooking

At the height of its glory, the Topkapi imperial kitchen served six thousand meals every day. Researchers have dug out some stunning data regarding the consumption of food here. For example, at the end of the 15th century the kitchen cooked around 10 thousand chickens every year. By the end of the next century the number rose to 80 thousand chickens. And by the 17th century 160 thousand chickens were being slaughtered, dressed and cooked here! The number of lambs cooked each year increased almost at the same rate over two centuries: 15 thousand, 40 thousand and finally 100 thousand. The kitchen also used up, at the end of the 17th century, yearly 1500 tons of wheat, 1200 tons of rice, 200 tons of ghee (clarified butter), and 67 tons of sugar.

Categories of cook

Four categories of cooks dished out this enormous amount of food: Usta, the chef. Under the Usta were the Halifes. And in the lower tier were the Sagirds. Under each Sagird there used to be dozens of cooks and helpers. A kitchen that started off with a modest 100 cooks, was functioning with 1300 of them during the reign of Mehmed III (1595-1603)!

As I strolled from one hall to another, I could feel in my nostrils the mesmerizing whiff of the delicate Ottoman imperial dishes. What dishes? That menu, even in brief, runs into over 100 pages. So, for that we have to wait till my next column!


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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