The Food of Sultans

By Malu Lambert
Photography & Styling C&D Heierli, Recipes Tayfun Aras
Shot on location Anatoli Restaurant, Green Point, Cape Town

He’s armed to the teeth. A sword glints at his side and a musket is in his right hand. To his regiment he’s known as the Pancake Maker. To his enemies he is death. As for the troops, they’re known as Soupmen. 

These somewhat innocuous and appetising monikers belonged to the Ottoman military elite. 

There’s also Chief Cook, Scullion and Baker. These are the names of high-ranking officers. This gastronomic army indicates just how important food was to the Turkish dynasty that ruled over the Mediterranean, as well as parts of Europe and many other Arab countries, for almost 600 years. And what a legacy they left. A bridge to Turkey’s royal past is evident in the country’s food. The variety of ingredients and spices conjures up images of sultans decked out in silk having their pick of the world’s flavours.

The Turkish kitchen is at the heart of any home, but for the military it was also the centre of politics. If things didn’t go his way, an officer would push the pilaf (grain dish) cauldron over. In modern Turkey, political rebellion is still referred to as ‘overturning the cauldron’.

So what do these formidable whirling dervishes like to eat? The food itself is a blend of old civilizations, a dash from the Middle East, a pinch from Balkans and a scoop from Northern Africa. 
Tayfun Aras, owner of Turkish restaurant Anatoli, in Cape Town, points out: “It was not just one-way traffic; Turkey has influenced and has been influenced in return.”

Turkish sultans dined on elaborate and time-consuming delicacies. Mounds of saffron tinged the air orange. While lamb was, and is, the most consumed meat in Turkey, royals weren’t afraid to tuck into rabbit or duck. Meze platters start a meal. Expect piping hot bread paired with dips such as walnut purée or cacik (a yogurt- and cucumber-based dip). Dolma is also a firm favourite. Soaked vine leaves stuffed with rice are the most simple version, but dolma can be stuffed with mussels, lamb and all kinds of vegetables. 

Be careful not to go overboard on the starters, though. The feast hasn’t even started; as far as main meals go the variety is endless. Mouthwatering kebaps, spiced milk-fed lamb and marinated swordfish, to name a few. 

The slow bubble of history remains entrenched in tradition from the Imperial Kitchen to contemporary Turkey. Recipes are still passed down from generation to generation. “A mother, busy with younger kids, instructs her oldest daughter how to cook certain things,” says Tayfun. “In this way recipes are learned through constant application and practice.”

Recipe books are only now available: older women are penning cookbooks for the upcoming generation—a way, perhaps, to discourage the youth from eating in fast-food restaurants.

Forget elbows on the table as the cardinal culinary sin. Bad table manners are seriously frowned upon. “We wait until my father excuses himself from the table, we never leave before him,” says Tayfun. “And definitely no smoking. I still don’t smoke in front of my father, and I’m 46.”
Bodily functions are also a no-no. “I was shocked by a man who once blew his nose at the table—in Turkey that would never be tolerated,” says Tayfun.

Long before TV, gossip magazines and PlayStation, feasting was entertainment. And Turks are still great believers in dinner and dancing. If you find yourself in an authentic Turkish restaurant, expect to find a satin- and jewel-clad belly dancer shimmying around. The dancers are known for their athletic style and their use of zils (finger cymbals) as they dance. 
Smoking a nargile (hookah pipe) is a popular pastime—especially after dinner. Dessert can come in the form of banana- and toffee-flavoured tobacco.

Turkish food can also have spiritual and symbolic meanings. For instance, semolina helva is eaten at funerals and, it is said, helps evoke ‘sweet memories’ of the departed. 

It’s custom to end the Ramadan fast with a simple date or black olive. However, the celebration after Ramadan comes in the form of a three-day festival called ‘sugar festivities’ or Seker bayrami. Bring on the glistening trays of baklava, Turkish delights and milk puddings.

But festivals aren’t all just sweet frivolity. There is also the ‘Festival of Sacrifice’ or Kurban Bayrami. “Every year we slaughter a lamb and share it with the less fortunate. We keep a minimum of the meat for ourselves,” Tayfun says. According to him, it commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God
There is of course no Christmas in this mostly Muslim country, but the Turks get down and celebrate the New Year. It’s called Yilbasi.They feast and dance through the night. “We don’t get as many presents as you do here in South Africa,” Tayfun says with a laugh.

In 2003, Tayfun and his wife Louise bought Anatoli, a restaurant that’s been around since 1984. A small community of Turks frequent the place, to drink Efes—a Turkish beer—or to sip on foamy cups of coffee. As for other beverages, tea is the most popular, while an anise aperitif called Raki, or ‘lion’s milk’, similar to the Greek’s ouzo,is paired with meze and fish dishes
According to Tayfun, Turks made wine way back in 3000 bc, and the Hittites (ancient Anatolian people) poured wine out of animal-shaped beakers in the form of libations, to honour their deities. “With the introduction of Islam, though, wine was forbidden, but now the wine industry is thriving,” says Tayfun. “Especially with our native grape Kalecik Karasi, which is a red grape grown on the red clay banks of rivers.”

We’re living in an era where we can get foie gras squirted out of a syringe and vinegar air to go with chips. But Turkish food is the antithesis of molecular gastronomy; it is instead slow food that is honest, rustic and ancient.

Or as Turkish author Abdulhak Sinasi puts it, “Do not dismiss the dish saying it is simply food. The blessed thing is an entire civilization in itself.”

The Eye of the Beholder

For millennia Turkish people have made use of a decorative blue amulet known as the Evil Eye or nazar boncuk. It is said to ward off envy elicited by good luck or fortune. The belief is that all praise and compliments are tinged with greed and hateful thoughts.

It’s customary for people to hang an evil eye in their new car or house to protect it from covetous glances, in the belief that it will redirect the evil energy. If the eye breaks, however, it’s because the feelings of malfeasance have overloaded the eye. You had better hang up a new one as quickly as possible; it’s widely believed this ‘evil’ can cause illness and even death. 
Beautiful children are also closely guarded. It’s not uncommon to find a safety pin with an evil eye fastened onto their garments. 
Why is the Evil Eye usually blue? Blue eyes are not commonplace in Turkey and are often the object of envy. So any envy will first be directed into it, thereby protecting the person who is wearing the jewellery.

Not just a talisman, the amulet is also an art form. Evil Eye masters have been perfecting it in hot furnaces over centuries of glass making—the reason some even call these masters magicians.

Your Fortune in the Coffee

Esin Unlu has wild mane-like hair and large almond-shaped eyes. Her nails are painted blood red, and she has an Evil Eye ring on one finger. Fortune telling isn’t her trade. She’s a student at UCT, but like most Turkish girls, she knows a thing or two about tasseography (reading your fortune in leftover coffee grounds). 

Esin is gazing into a cup. She rolls it around in her palm. “I just need to observe it for a moment,” she says and, after a pause, “There’s a cloud of darkness. Many layers are built up. There are a lot of things going on in your life, things you can’t see through yet.” She sees the puzzlement on my face. “But there’s a gap in this darkness.” She points to a crescent shape in the opaque coffee layer at the bottom of the cup. “It’s saying you must ignore the unknown and just go through the gap.” 
Umm, okay, whatever.

“And do you see this?” she says. “You’re a blob.” 
I peer at the ‘blobby’ piece she’s talking about. “You are like a piece of dough waiting on the table to be shaped. It’s a good thing. It means you can be anything you want to be.” 
I can understand that.

“There’s also a puppy-like creature,” she says turning the cup. “Look, its head is bent, like it’s looking for sympathy.” 
I recognise the shape of a sad looking puppy. Me again? It’s not exactly the reading I was hoping for. Success in my career, a whirlwind romance, a rise in my bank balance — any of those would do. 
At least the coffee tasted good.

Do you think you can cook a traditional Turkish meal? Why not give it a go. Try one of these recipes. 

Stewed Quinces with Cream
Lamb Chops with Quinces
Spicy Lamb on a Skewer
Stuffed Aubergine