Anglo-Turkish Society

Talk by Mary Işın on her latest book “Sherbet & Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts”, 26 September 2013. Mary, living in Turkey since 1973, started researching Ottoman cuisine in 1983. She is also the author of “The Turkish Kitchen” and translator of numerous books on Turkish history and culture.

Mary Işın with her latest book “Sherbet & Spice”.
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Sherbet & Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts - Mary Işın - I.B. Tauris, 2013

Mary Işın in this book has attempted to categorise and catalogue the vast field of Turkish sweets and deserts. In this task she has 2 advantages: She has spent the past 40 years in Turkey, coming from the West, with a curiosity typical of an Anglo and has been able to access archive books and Ottoman manuscripts on the history of Turkish cuisine. Her second strength lies in her determination to get to the deeper story of sweet foods, travelling to their homeland region and in some cases tracking down the last person who can perform some of the tedious tasks required to achieve the perfect texture and taste.

So this book breaks new ground and has an interest both for the food historian and the sweet-toothed Westerner. On the historical front there are wonderful vignettes and illustrations showing the importance of sweets in Turkish-Ottoman culture, from a miniature depicting a symbolic confectioner’s shop being pulled along a float in a guild procession in 1582 to photographs of villagers in Western Turkey using a variety of star shaped iron moulds on hot oil to create patterned fritters called Demir Tatlısı. The vein of history and tradition runs through the book and not surprising as clearly sweets still have an importance for modern Turkey, used in a variety of celebrations both secular and religious and in the Ottoman past the palace in its exuberance even created elaborate ‘sugar gardens’ for Sultan son’s circumcision ceremonies.

The book will serve well the Turkish food enthusiast as well, as some of the recipes such as watermelon peel preserve are lost to history and Ms Işın was able to source this from an eighteenth-century palace document with quantities in that document suitable for a palace retinue. Going further back in time Ms Işın’s ability to read these ancient texts, has converted measurements to metric measurements and so the reader today can also attempt aubergine preserve etc.

The book is over 300 pages long, is neatly divided into sections such as Sherbet Sugar, Preserves, Helva, allowing the reader to dip into sections that would interest. There is an impressive section of reference notes at the end with a detailed bibliography in English and Turkish and an index. The one down side of the book is the lack of photos of the recipes / desserts mentioned and possibly no website to accompany this mass of information. The book would also appeal to those who only take a mild interest in Turkish sweets as there are enough historical stories and footnotes, often from early visiting Western eyes, to colour the prose. There is also analysis how the sweets and confectionaries flowed both ways, East and West, influencing each other over the centuries.

The author clearly loves the subject and the enthusiasm comes in an understated way in the prose. While this book should be commended for being clearly the first to bring this wide historical gastronomic panorama together, there is also a sense of sadness as some of the sweets described in the book are on their death-bed, or at least in terms of quality. For example currently there is only one person now who goes to the trouble of making whistling cockerel shaped hollow lollipops and so while a new era of unlimited Western available sweets maybe opening up to the Turkish masses, some of the old treats seem destined never to return. At least Ms Işın has taken the trouble to chase this partially disappearing art and culture and has recorded it for posterity. Fortunately Turkish sweet cuisine is by and large alive and well whether it is aşure, kadayıf, sucuk, helva, baklava, lokum, güllaç, misk, akide, çevirme, peynir şekeri... and the list goes on.

Book cover.

Demir Tatlısı.
Two sugar gardens made for the circumcision festivities for Ahmet III’s sons in 1720. The gardens contain a castle and pavilion respectively, diverse fruit trees, and cypress trees with grape vines twined around them.
Review by Craig Encer, October 2013.
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1. Since 1983 you have been researching Ottoman cuisine and published your first book The Turkish Kitchen in 1988. What started you in this quest?

After settling in Turkey with my husband in 1973 I got to love Turkish food. His family were great cooks and keen eaters. My curiosity was aroused about the history of this wonderfully diverse and sophisticated cuisine, and I began reading academic studies by people like Prof. Günay Kut and Prof. Süheyl Ünver, who launched the study of food history in Turkey, and primary sources such as travel accounts, memoirs, medical books and Ottoman cookery books. Even Ottoman poetry is a source of fascinating information.

2. In 1998 you transcribed an Ottoman Turkish cookbook dated 1900 and a food dictionary from around 1800 and you taught yourself to read Ottoman script for this purpose. How widely known and appreciated is Ottoman cuisine in modern Turkey?

I acquired some Ottoman cookery books from second-hand bookshops in the 1980s and was encouraged to learn to read them by Prof. Turan Yazgan. My knowledge is limited to reading 19th century printed or clearly written manuscript recipes, but even that has been extremely useful for my research. I began transcribing Mahmud Nedim’s Aşçıbaşı for my own information and learnt a great deal from his recipes, then later it was published. There is a growing body of transcriptions of archive documents and historical texts by academic researchers, such palace kitchen registers. Books and exhibitions relating to Ottoman food history have multiplied since the early 1980s and today there is wide interest among the general public and culinary professionals in Turkey. Also the growing number of books on regional cuisine are invaluable, since many of the dishes made in the Ottoman period have been forgotten in Istanbul but are alive and well in the provinces. Baklava with a fresh cheese filling made in Urfa was the example that first made me aware of this.

3. You have also worked on an encyclopaedic dictionary of Ottoman food terminology published in Turkish.

Many of the culinary terms used in historical documents cannot be found in Ottoman Turkish dictionaries so there was a need for a dictionary dedicated solely to culinary terminology of the period and giving detailed definitions. I compiled the information from more than four hundred and fifty sources, at first just for my own personal use. Then a friend suggested publishing it.

4. Are there sub-branches of this cuisine according to ethnic groups that you can trace till today?

The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural society and Ottoman cuisine was a fusion of traditions contributed by people of different faiths and different ethnic backgrounds. Disentangling these contributions is largely impossible since, apart from the Turks who arrived in the medieval period bringing Central Asian culinary influences, the peoples of the region had lived side by side for thousands of years. Far more important than any ethnic divisions were the climatic and other conditions prevailing in different geographical regions. Religion is also a significant factor. Abstinence from pork in the case of Muslims and Jews and the meatless fasting periods of Orthodox and Gregorian Christians are obvious examples. Christian fasts, which totalled almost half the year, led to the development of vegetable dishes cooked with olive oil, the zeytinyağlı dishes that Muslims and Jews also came to enjoy. At the same time these zeytinyağlı dishes were themselves influenced by mainstream Ottoman cuisine, zeytinyağlı stuffed vegetables being one example. Interaction of this kind over the centuries was a complex process.

An interesting example is aşure, a pudding made of whole wheat grains, pulses and dried fruits. The origins of this pudding can be traced back to boiled whole wheat eaten as part of ancient pagan fertility rites practised in the Near East since the Neolithic period. Over time distinctive variations developed, including the aşure made by Muslims during Muharrem, the koliva made by Orthodox Christians for funerals, the Day of All Souls and the Feast of the Assumption, the anuş abur made by Armenian Gregorians and Catholics for Christmas and New Year, and the trigo koço made by Sephardic Jews living in the Ottoman Empire for the ancient Hebrew new year festival of Tu B’Shvat.

4. How long did it take to work on the background research for ‘Sherbet and Spice’?

I focused on researching Ottoman sweets and puddings for more than a decade before writing Sherbet and Spice. This is a particularly fascinating aspect of Ottoman cuisine because sweet foods symbolised good fortune and happiness and played a part in many aspects of Ottoman life, including celebrations of births and marriages, Ramazan, hospitality rituals and official ceremonies at the palace. Social gatherings known as helva sohbeti (“helva conversations”) were named after the custom of making helva for the guests. Tracing the origins of each type of sweet revealed the complex interaction of different cultures before and during the Ottoman period. Culinary creativity was valued by the Ottomans, and this led to such innovations as tel kadayıf (pastry threads baked with nuts and soaked in syrup), baklava, akide (boiled sugar sweets), and kazandibi (a caramelised milk pudding).

5. How far back can you find recipes for sweets in Turkish sources? Where do you look?

Brief descriptions of a few sweet foods are found in Mahmud of Kashgar’s 11th century dictionary of Turkic dialects, the Divanü Lûgat-it-Türk. From the 14th century onwards Ottoman Turkish medical books sometimes include recipes for sweetmeats and other dishes, since a healthy diet was the cornerstone of Islamic medicine. In the 15th century Shirvani, palace physician to Sultan Murad II, includes a few sweetmeats among the 77 original Turkish recipes he added to his translation of an Arabic cookery book. From the 16th century onwards recipes or detailed lists of ingredients become more numerous in palace documents and a variety of other sources. The first Turkish cookery book is an 18th century manuscript cookery manual followed in 1844 by the first printed cookery book. Thereafter an increasing number of cookery books appeared, all with many recipes for sweets and puddings.

6. Do sweets still have the same symbolic and religious importance in modern Turkey as they did in the past?

Many customs still survive today in Turkey, such as distributing semolina helva or lokma (doughnuts soaked in syrup) after funerals, eating güllaç (starch wafers soaked in milk with rose waterer) during Ramazan, sweets during the Ramazan Bayram, which is known as the Sugar Bayram in Turkish, and distributing sweets like akide and sugared almonds at weddings and the memorial ceremonies known as Mevlit.

7. Your book points to some of the more elaborate sweets, such as keten helva, cockerel whistle lollipops being almost lost as it requires high skill. Do you think more can be done to preserve these skills / heritage?

Definitely more needs to be done to encourage the survival of these skills. To my knowledge there are only two makers of the traditional hollow lollipops left in Turkey, and the number of people who still make keten helva at home is diminishing all the time. I wish courses could be organised at cookery schools and culinary centres to pass on these skills to new generations. I think people would enjoy learning and practising these techniques.

8. You have authored a book in 2003 ‘Friedrich Unger, A King’s Confectioner in the Orient’. Can you tell us more of your quest, following a rumour and what was revealed in the writings of this journeyman?

A book written in German by Friedrich Unger, Chief Confectioner to King Otto I, a Bavarian prince who became the first king of Greece, was what triggered my research into sweets. His book was published in Athens in 1838 and as far as I can discover only one copy has survived, in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek library in Munich. An abridged Turkish translation of this book was published in Turkish by Feyzi Halıcı in the early 1980s. However, the limitations of this translation prompted my search for the original book, and when I eventually received a microfilm in 2000 I discovered that the text was considerably longer than the translation and filled with recipes and details found in no other source. An added bonus was some delightful colour illustrations. Unger visited Istanbul in 1835 after being told that Istanbul was the main centre for Ottoman confectionery. There he observed the methods of making many kinds of jam, sherbet, helva, lokum (Turkish delight) etc. As a professional confectioner he was able to understand the techniques used by Ottoman confectioners.

9. Your latest book published in 2014 in Turkish ‘Osmanlı Mutfak İmparatorluğu’ deals with Ottoman influences on other cuisines? How far and extensive was this influence and do you think that is still under-appreciated?

Osmanlı Mutfak İmparatorluğu is a collection of essays that begins with a study of Ottoman influence on other cuisines. The title “Ottoman Culinary Empire” is a phrase coined by the Austrian Iranologist Bert Fragner, in reference to the way the Ottomans set their mark on local cuisines throughout the empire, leaving a legacy that is still alive today. Ottoman influence also extended into Europe, particularly via Italy and Hungary. As well as coffee and Turkish delight, the examples which spring first to mind, other influences include fondant, rice pudding, stuffed vegetables, pastırma (pastrami), and fruit varieties such as grafted apricots, melons and watermelons. Sherbet became a popular drink in many parts of Europe, and when the Italians started freezing sherbet, leading to the invention of icecream in the 17th century, the Italian version of the word, sorbetto (sorbet in English and French) became the name for water ices that is still current today. Watermelons were known as Turkish gourd in English, turquin in French and arbuse in German, and nougat on sticks is still known in Germany and Austria today as Türkischer honig (Turkish honey). The name turkey, still used in English for the American bird, reflects the fact that for centuries Turkey was a source of previously unfamiliar foods, as it was of garden flowers like the tulip.

10. Are you continuing your research on Turkish cuisine?

I have just completed a book on food history for students and am beginning a new book on Ottoman cuisine. This is a far-ranging subject that is increasingly the subject of academic research and writing for general readers both in Turkey and elsewhere. Until recently much of English language food history literature was very much Euro-centred, presenting a skewed and incomplete picture because Ottoman and other non-European cuisines were not taken into account. Historians now recognise that the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe were not two separate worlds insulated from one another but that they closely interacted in the economic, political and cultural spheres. Culinary history has much to offer by throwing light on this interaction.

Interviewed by Craig Encer, March 2015.