Turkey: What to Make of Culinary Neo-Ottomanism?
One of the culinary trends to take hold in Istanbul over the last few years is the appearance of several restaurants promising "Ottoman palace" cuisine, with menus made up of dishes, based on recipes dug up in archives, that the chefs swear are no different than what the sultans themselves ate.
These claims, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Considering Ottoman palace cooks probably didn't leave behind cookbooks for today's chefs to work with, are there really that many researchers out there who are poring over archival material to somehow reconstruct what went into the sultans' favorite dishes? And are there that many chefs with the skills to translate both what the researchers are coming up with and the sultans' notoriously finicky tastes into actual dishes that will appeal to today's palates?
Can neo-Ottoman cuisine, then, be anything more than tarted up traditional Turkish dishes served in dining room with overstuffed chairs and gaudy decor? That's the question doctoral candidate Pinar Tremblay tackles in an interesting piece she wrote for the Al-Monitor website, tying it in with the same questions raised by the rise of Turkey's neo-Ottoman foreign policy. From her article:
If we ask how the idea of neo-Ottomanism has affected the food scene in Turkey and globally, the initial feedback is that it has brought mixed blessings. First, it is fair to say, you can find an Ottoman Empire-inspired Turkish restaurant in several European cities as well in the Middle East. Any frequent traveler to Cairo would point you to Osmanly Restaurant, in the Kempinski Nile Hotel, and in Doha, Qatar, many expats would concur that the best Turkish food is served at Sukar Pasha Restaurant. In many restaurants, a common point of interest is a yearning for the palace era, for upscale dining with Ottoman ambiance and a few signature dishes. The most attractive menus include a few words about one of the famous sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, and his beloved wife, Hurrem Sultan, who are all-time favorites....
....Ottoman cuisine gained a precious reputation, not only because of the fusion of a variety of ingredients into gourmet dishes but also because of the fusion of a variety of cooking methods into a rich culinary tradition. Efe Moral, a journalist and a serious gourmet of Greek and Aegean cuisine, told Al-Monitor, “Anatolian traditional cuisine has numerous hidden gems and Turkish cuisine would only be serious if it welcomed influences from the Balkans to the Aegean to the Middle East. But it has its own troubles nonetheless. Its cooking traditions and presentation should undergo a serious fundamental revision if it’s going to claim its rightful place in world cuisine.” Moral summarized the current market of Ottoman cuisine in Turkey: “There are increasing numbers of restaurants that claim to serve Ottoman food in Turkey. But they are nothing more than restaurants which do not serve alcohol, and imitations of traditional restaurants like Haci Abdullah in Istanbul with a modern setting. Ottoman cuisine is not researched enough and a few recipes are circulated over and over again for promotional purposes.”
Serious establishments such as Asitane Restaurant in Istanbul are few, and even they could only recover 200 recipes from 600 years of Ottoman history. For now, you can get a taste of the Ottoman world if you are visiting Topkapi Palace with a refreshing tamarind sherbet. However, you cannot find tamarind on the market; only a few traditional patisseries serve this drink. It is sodas and juice boxes that dominate the Turkish market. For those of us familiar with the neo-Ottoman turn Turkish foreign policy has taken in the last decade, there are sad similarities between the trends of neo-Ottoman cuisine and foreign policy: Both generate interest and chatter, and both fail to deliver substantial marketable results. I cannot make predictions for foreign policy, but I do hope neo-Ottoman cuisine will go back to its roots of “fusion.”
The full article, which makes for very interesting reading, can be found here.