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Ramazan Meals in the Ottoman Times

The month of Ramazan is not only a time of religious significance but also a chapter of its own in Turkish cultural history. The evening meal known as iftar was marked by its own special customs, family visits where exchanged, and a nation of normally early risers sat up until late or even promenaded in the illuminated streets, visited cafes and watched shadow plays. It was a way of celebrating Ramazan which took its cue from Istanbul, where these customs developed over the centuries. Special delicacies adorned the tables to make up for the deprivation of fasting.

Those old Ramazans represented many of the high spots of Ottoman Turkish Cuisine . Even the humblest household bedecked their Ramazan tables with treats they could not normally afford, and with dishes associated particularly with that month. Meals and refreshments offered to guests reflected the polyphonic voice of this imperial cuisine.

On the fifteenth day of Ramazan the Sultan would visit the holy Mantel of the Prophet and the palace kitchens would prepare huge round trays of baklava for the janissaries, one tray to each ten men, plus a tray which would be presented to the sultan. Two janissaries would shoulder each tray and carry it off to their barracks, returning them the next day together with the cloths which had covered them.

Preparing baklava according to the high standards of those times was no mean feat, and one of the tests of an accomplished cook. No less than one hundred tissue thin sheets of pastry had to be layered in the tray, and when a gold sovereign was dropped from half a meter height above it, the coin was expected to pierce right through the pastry and make contact with the bottom of the tray. Cooks who passed this rigorous test were rewarded for their skill, and baklava which failed the test was sent back in disgrace to the kitchen.

One of the traditional hot entrees to a Ramazan meal was eggs with onions palace style. This simple sounding dish was in fact a delicacy fit for a gourmet when prepared by the palace cooks, who rivaled one another to produce the finest on a specified night in Ramazan. Having attached papers with their names to the pans, the sultan would taste each of them one by one and select the best. That cook would then be appointed to the post of chief pantry keeper for the year. The secret of the delicious flavor was to stir the onions in butter over a low heat for three or three and half hour.

There were many other customs associated with Ramazan. For example, following iftar, at the palace the intendant of the kitchens would prepare an aromatic tisane for the sultan, the grand vezir and the other vezirs. This infusion containing Carduelis spinus, cyclamen, Indian aloe, calambac, agalloch, acacia gum, cochineal, soapwort, sesame root, musk, arrange flower water and rose water would be filtered and presented to the sultan's vezirs and high ranking officials in gilded or plain bottles and bowls according to their status. This gift took the place of an invitation to attend the ceremony of the Holy Mantle on the fifteenth of the month. The wealthy held open table throughout Ramazan, and anyone who knocked on the door at iftar time would be invited into eat at tables laid in the halls. In one occasion as the hour of iftar approached Mahmud II ordered his barge to  hearth at Salacak on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, and arrived at the house of a prominent official named Darüzzade Abdullah whose reputation as a lover of fine food had reached the palace. His wife and servants were in a panic, but Darüzzade Abdullah invited the sultan to the table calmly and gave orders to bring in any extra specialties the kitchen had to offer. The dishes served in gold plates came up to the sultan's expectations and he enjoyed his delicious meal. Finally it was time for the stewed fruit, which traditionally rounded off Turkish meals. This was served not in a clear crystal bowl but in a strangely clouded glass bowl, and Mahmud II was surprised after having been served with the household's finest ware throughout the rest of the meal. Darüzzade explained that the cook had carved a bowl of ice to keep the hosaf cool without watering dawn the fragrantly perfumed fruit juice, You know how to live, my friend declared Mahmud II admiringly. Although much of this pomp and extravagance of past Ramazans has gone never to return, it is still a time of carefully prepared tables with special dishes to celebrate the month of fasting, and of getting together with relatives, neighbors and friends.

Ramazan Meals in Ottoman Times
By Ali Esad Göksell,