Turkish cuisine is a melange of different influences and styles, as the Ottomans gathered chefs from across their huge empire and moved them to their capital, Istanbul. And before them, the Byzantines attracted Roman gastronomes to bring their savoir-faire to Constantinople, the old name for the capital.
The Ottoman Empire peaked around the turn of the 19th century, and was in decline mid-century, earning the title of ‘sick man of Europe.’ This is where Jason Goodwin places Yashim, his detective who was neutered at childhood. As a eunuch, he has access to the Sultan’s harem, and is sent on dangerous missions by the Sultan and his senior wife.
But apart from his skills in detection and logic, Yashim is also an ace chef, whipping out delicious dishes based on local produce. Here is Yashim at work in his kitchen:
“Yashim took the knife from the table and hefted it in the palm of his hands. Years of sharpening had taken the blade down to a fraction of an inch …
“He had known what he wanted to do the moment he saw the artichokes on George’s stall …
“Yashim, who felt he’d been waiting weeks already if not for summer then at least for [his friend] Palewski to come home, seized a dozen. He bought broad beans, fresh onions and a fistful of dill and parsley.
Turkish cuisine is one of the world’s richest, with thousands of years of history. But the stories around it are even more fascinating
At home, he halved a lemon and squeezed the juice of both halves into a bowl of water. He set an onion on the board and chopped down on its spiralled top, wondering how many hands had held this knife, and how many times it had been asked to perform the same simple function in Damascus or Cairo.
“Smiling to himself, almost dancing around the blade, he sliced the onion in half. He sliced each half lengthways and sideways, watching his fingers while he admired the fineness of the blade.
“He set a pan on the coals, slopped in a gurgle of oil, and dropped in the finely chopped onion. He reached into a crock for two handfuls of rice. He cut the herbs small and scraped them into the rice … He threw in a pinch of sugar and a cup of water. The water hissed; he stirred the pan with a wooden spoon …
“He began to trim the artichokes.
“Summer was good. The knife was better.”
I have been going to Turkey for over 50 years now, usually to visit Deniz, my oldest friend. Her parents were friends of mine when my father was doing his PhD in Paris just before the start of World War II and her son Nail knows mine well. She has an old house overlooking the Aegean Sea, and often asks me to cook for her. On her visits to Pakistan, when my father (whom Deniz called Guru) was alive, she always demanded desi food.
Unfortunately, my attempts at replicating our home cooking never quite succeeded, as Turkish spices are very feeble when compared to our strong, fiery ones. The resulting curries were therefore pretty anaemic concoctions that fell far short of the genuine article. While Deniz could tell the difference, her friends showered me with ill-deserved praise.
This is not to suggest that Turkish cuisine is anything short of wonderful when cooked correctly. The range and simplicity of many dishes is amazing. However, they do lack the complexity and contrasts our dishes have.
And by the way, I urge readers to look for the Jason Goodwin series of Yashim Cooks Istanbul novels. They will be rewarded in more ways than one.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 15th, 2020