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Turkish Delights

The mighty culinary reach of the Ottoman Empire

Joan Nathan
October 21, 2010

Recently I attended a dinner in Washington honoring the government of Azerbaijan, where Jews have lived, especially in the port city of Baku, for thousands of years. The menu consisted of shish kebabs, rice, cucumber salad with yogurt, lots of roasted vegetables with pomegranates, and baklava for dessert. Looking at the foods selected, I realized how many of these dishes were spread by the Ottoman Empire. Although Azerbaijan—a country that straddles Eastern Europe and Western Asia and was under Soviet rule for 70 years—was part of the Ottoman Empire only briefly, from 1590 to 1612, its cuisine reflects the long-lasting Ottoman influence.

At the height of its powers, the empire’s mighty reach extended from Sudan in the south to Herzegovina and Budapest in the north. The Turks introduced an enormous number of culinary techniques and recipes to their lands. In Palestine, Turks taught Arab bakers to make flat, layered pastries like baklava. In Hungary, which the Ottomans ruled between 1541 and 1699, Turks instructed the Hungarians on how to make layers of paper-thin pastries, while the Hungarians shared their custom of twisting them into rolls like strudel. A sweet roll made with yogurt in Turkey became a buttery delicacy called pogaca in Hungary. Jews, too, picked up these techniques in the latter part of the reign. Under Ottoman tutelage, Turkish, Balkan, and Greek Jews prepared burekas, boyos, baklava, eggplant dishes, and some kinds of yogurt. It is difficult to pinpoint where these recipes originated but they evolved and moved throughout the Balkans and Turkey.

According to Edward Luttwak, a historian and the author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman army was the first to spread recipes and cooking techniques. The elite Janissary corps, which Luttwak calls “the first modern force since Roman times,” made a big soup called chorba an integral part of its soldiers’ diet. “Only by eating this thick halal meat soup with vegetables and beans were they able to avoid dysentery, which was responsible for most deaths,” Luttwak says.

The soldiers also ate basturma as a part of their rations, a halal meat that is sliced, wind-dried, and pickled with dried spices before being pressed together again. “This technique was invented by the Byzantines, adopted by the Ottomans, and circulated everywhere,” says Luttwak. He points out that pastrami has its roots in basturma. Romania and Transylvania, which were part of the Turkish Empire from the mid-16th to the 18th century, “had the highest fertility rates … and the lowest population density,” Luttwak says. “With lots of animals there was lots of meat. This technique of curing was important for the Jews, who were a mobile community.” Jewish peddlers in Romania and elsewhere quickly learned how the Turks cured their meat and began curing kosher meat in the same way, no doubt adding more garlic, black pepper, and lots of paprika. It served them well on their long journeys away from their kosher homes.

Jews who lived on the coasts of the Turkish Empire in places such as Izmir, Salonika, and Istanbul, had different ingredients available to them; they could rely on the abundance the Mediterranean had to offer.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, merchants fanned out across the Mediterranean. “With Istanbul, Izmir, and Salonika as centers of Judeo-Spanish culture, the dishes brought from Spain were adopted in many Muslim countries, including Egypt,” says Claudia Roden, the author of The Book of Jewish Food and a scholar-in-residence at Yale University this year. The Jews played an essential role as merchants. “In Aleppo”—in Northern Syria—“they were in the caravan of camels,” Roden says. “Theirs was a sort of symbiotic relationship. Jews and Armenians were the merchants and traders.”

As Jewish Sephardic merchants settled in these cities they adapted their own dishes to the local provisions and the dietary laws. Roden cites distinctly Jewish Sephardic dishes, like calzone, a ravioli stuffed with cheese, and her famous gâteau à l’orange, a Jewish orange cake that she learned about from a relative in Salonika, Greece, whose ancestors came from Livorno and, before that, Portugal. These recipes wound their way through the Ottoman Empire. “No Muslim makes an orange cake,” says Roden, whose family carried their own recipes from Spain to Egypt to England. “Only Jews make an orange cake.”

During the Turkish Empire, from the late 16th to early 18th centuries, Jews played an important part in spreading tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers from the New World to the Old. Jewish and Arab doctors knew that tomatoes were edible despite fears among many Jews that this member of the nightshade family was poisonous. Between the doctors and the merchants, these foods were slowly accepted, and people began eating them, first cooked and eventually raw.

A few months ago, when I was testing a stuffed vegetable recipe with meat for an article I was writing, I invited some friends over. The guests loved the stuffed tomatoes, peppers, squash, and onions, infused with fragrant spices. Stuffed vegetables, often called medias, is a Spanish dish of likely Jewish Catalonian origins that journeyed throughout the Turkish Empire, possibly beginning with Sephardic Jews who left Spain during the Inquisition. One of my guests, a Jewish woman who grew up in Egypt, had remained quiet during the dinner conversation. I feared her silence meant she didn’t like the dish. I called her the next day, and she reassured me this wasn’t the case. As a young girl in Alexandria, the daughter of a Syrian mother and an Egyptian father, she ate a stuffed vegetable that was similar to the one I had made. Similar and yet different; the stuffed vegetable of her childhood had a lighter meat mix.

Even one recipe, like stuffed vegetables, can vary tremendously. Depending on the route each family took, the filling of meat might be mixed with eggs, matzo meal, or nuts and condiments like cinnamon, allspice, and mint. The casing itself might be artichokes, carrots, or even beets covered in a sauce made from the spices of the filling and tomatoes. Each ingredient can speak volumes of a family’s history.

Recently I learned of a 90-year-old woman with the wonderful name of Violette Corcos Abulafia Tapiero Budestchu. Born in Mogador, on the Moroccan coast, Madame “Granny” Budestchu, who now splits her time between Israel and France, is a fabulous cook. According to her granddaughter Dafne Tapiero, Granny is a descendant of Kabbalists, prominent merchants, and royal counselors to the sultans and kings of Morocco.

When Granny cooks her spice-scented lentils or her fried artichokes, the subtle flavors bring back memories of the Morocco of her childhood. But her grandchildren or great-grandchildren have different associations; when they prepare these same dishes, the smells recall memories of afternoon and evening visits to Granny’s apartments in Jerusalem and near Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris. Granny’s recipes can be traced back to 12th-century Spain, when her Abulafia forebears served as traders throughout the Ottoman Empire, traveling from Turkey to Palestine’s Tiberias. The slight variations in recipes, tasted over and over again, create meaningful food memories, so salient for all of us and so entangled in the historical wanderings of Jews.

Adapted from Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France
12 small artichokes, or 4 10-ounce boxes of frozen artichoke hearts or artichoke quarters
Coarse salt to taste
Olive oil for frying
The juice of 1 lemon
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Coarsely ground pepper to taste

1. If using fresh artichokes, snap off the outer leaves, leaving only the pale inner leaves. Trim the stems and cut off the thorny tops about ¾ of an inch down. Take a sharp knife and smash the artichokes so that the leaves look as if they are blooming like a flower.

2. Put the trimmed artichokes in a bowl and cover with cold water and the lemon juice (the juice keeps them from turning brown). If using frozen artichokes, defrost them in the refrigerator the night before. The next morning, sprinkle with salt and let sit for an hour or so.

3. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Heat the olive oil in a deep fryer, heavy pan, or a wok until it reaches 375 degrees. Pat the artichokes dry and lower a few at a time into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, crispy, and puffed up.

4. Using a wire strainer, transfer the artichokes to the paper towel or parchment-lined pans to soak up all the excess oil. Gently press out any excess oil, but don’t crush the artichokes! Continue frying the rest of the artichokes in batches.

5. Toss while still warm with lemon juice, crushed garlic, and fresh chives, cilantro, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: About 8 servings

Adapted from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey From Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden

2 oranges
6 eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 tablespoons orange-blossom water
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ cups blanched almonds, coarsely ground

1. Wash the oranges and boil them whole for 1 ½ hours, or until they are very soft.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 9-inch cake pan, preferably nonstick and with a removable base, and dust with matzo meal or flour.

3. Beat the eggs with the sugar. Add the orange-blossom water, baking powder and almonds and mix well. Cut open the oranges, remove the seeds, and puree in a food processor. Mix thoroughly with the egg-and-almond mixture and pour into cake pan. Bake for one hour. Let cake cool before turning out.

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

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