Twenty years ago, I walked across Eastern Europe to Istanbul. The food, on the whole, was plain, but from Bulgaria we walked through a gathering rush of portents—strong coffee and orthodox domes, bright prints and the eastern rhythm of gypsy music—until we reached The City, and began to eat.
We ate fish in a restaurant suspended under the old Galata Bridge, watching the ferries come and go. We ate mutton and eggplant wrapped in a paper parcel in the Grand Bazaar. Bread of exceptional freshness appeared at every restaurant table. Cauldrons bubbled, full of sweet or spicy vegetable stews, to be eaten with morsels of tender lamb, marinated, spitted, and roasted over the charcoal braziers whose scent drifted through the air. We found sustaining dishes of beans, the large white kind, and everywhere rice, especially pilaf with golden chickpeas (I did not know then that Mahmut Pasha, one of the great fifteenth-century grand viziers, put real gold chickpeas in his pilaf to delight his guests, like sixpence in the Christmas pudding). Down on the shores of the Golden Horn we bought mackerel sandwiches, the fish just taken from the Bosporus, filleted and grilled on the boats. After months of Soviet-style scarcity and monotony, Istanbul was like a gingerbread house.
It had its fairy-tale palace too. Set on the first of the city’s seven hills, overlooking the Bosporus and the Asian coast, Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman sultans from shortly after the conquest in 1453 until the nineteenth century. It is not a typical castle or stately home. The Turks were firstly nomads, and Topkapi most resembles an encampment in stone, a collection of fossilized tents and open spaces. A wit once remarked that it looked as if it had been shaken out of a bag. But what thrilled foreign visitors to the marrow during the Ottoman period was the human architecture of the place, the rows of utterly silent, immobile janissaries standing guard around the walls of the court, the silent servants, the bowing slaves, all bearing witness to the sultan’s absolute authority over men.
Among the kiosks, halls, reception chambers, and harem baths, I suspect that visitors today spend the least time of all in the palace kitchens—unless they have an interest in Chinese porcelain, which is displayed in there. Otherwise there’s nothing much to see, just a series of domed rooms. Outside you can count the ten pairs of massive chimneys, but there’s no smoke.
It’s a pity that the building is so quiet, because it was in here, over four centuries, that one aspect of Istanbul’s imperial purpose was most vividly expressed. The imperial kitchen quarters extended well beyond the great domed chambers, each of which was devoted to particular specialties, such as the making of sweets, pickles, and cures. There were pantries and storerooms and offices for the team of clerks who kept meticulous records of what was bought, and how much was spent. Hundreds of men, commanded by sixty specialty chefs, lived and worked here, feeding up to ten thousand people a day. The soup, the pilaf, the helva, the vegetable dishes, meats, breads, pastries were each produced by a master chef, with as many as a hundred apprentices. They had their own dormitories, a fountain, a mosque, and a hammam where they could bathe.
Stupendous quantities of food came into the palace. In 1723, for example, the imperial household consumed thirty thousand head of beef, sixty thousand of mutton, twenty thousand of veal, ten thousand of kid, 200,000 of fowl, 100,000 pigeons and three thousand turkeys. That was the butcher’s bill. About fifty years earlier, half a million bushels of chickpeas and twelve thousand pounds of salt were delivered to the palace kitchens. The palace tore through food like the city that surrounded it—in 1581 eight ships from Egypt brought grain sufficient to feed the city for a single day.