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Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks

Istanbul - Blue Mosque - flickr-Oberazzi
Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Photo: flickr/Oberazzi

Ogier Ghislen de Busbecq was appointed ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire in 1554. He is remembered to this day for his Turkish Letters, a series of four essays written to describe his life and times as ambassador. They remain fresh and fascinating, not only for their insights into the international politics of the time, but also as reportage of the empire at its height. According to Philip Mansel, the historian who has written a book on Istanbul and has contributed an introduction to this edition, permanent embassies were only established in Constantinople in the 1530s and "they functioned as research institutes and artists' studios as well as embassies. Among sixteenth-century ambassadors few were keener to learn about the Ottoman Empire than Ogier Ghislen de Busbecq." In these extracts the ambassador discusses fish in the Black Sea and food:

The sea everywhere is full of fish, either making their way down, as is their habit, from the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora to the Aegean and Mediterranean, or else on their journey up thence to the Black Sea. They travel in such large and densely packed shoals that they can sometimes even be captured by hand. Mackerel, tunny, mullet, bream, and sword-fish are caught in great abundance. The fishermen are usually Greeks rather than Turks. The latter, however, do not despise fish when they are placed before them, provided they are of the kind which they regard as clean; they would sooner take a deadly poison than eat the other kinds.

Ogier de Busbecq was much taken with sherbet or "Arab sorbet" as he says it was called and gives a description of how it was made. This extract however describes everyday fare:

The Turks are so frugal and think so little of the pleasures of eating that if they have bread and salt and some garlic or an onion, and a kind of sour milk… which they call yoghoort, they ask for nothing more. They dilute this milk with very cold water and crumble bread into it and take it when they are very hot and thirsty. We often experienced great benefit from this drink in the extreme heat; it is not only palatable and digestible, but also possesses an extraordinary power of quenching the thirst. At all the caravanserais, which… are Turkish inns, there was an abundance of sour milk on sale as well as other kinds of relish. For the Turks, when they are travelling, do not require hot food or meat. Their relishes are sour milk, cheese, prunes, pears, peaches, quinces, figs, raisins, and cornel-cherries, all of which are boiled in clean water and set out on large earthenware trays. Each man buys what takes his fancy, and eats the fruit as a relish with his bread, and when he has finished swallows the remaining juice by way of drink. Thus their food and drink costs them very little

Turkish Letters. Ogier de Busbecq. 2005.
[p. 23 & pp. 34-35 / First published by Eland in 2001, this edition, 2005]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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