I sit at a table within Asitane Restaurant in historical Edirnekapı, Istanbul.
A waiter stands beside me and instead of glancing quickly over the menu, I drift off into the 16th century…
The precise year is 1539.
I imagine a palace servant wading through the sounds, smells and produce of the spice market.
Fondling the pomegranates…
Scooping almonds, pine nuts and currants into bags…
Demanding the most subtle selection of lamb and beef.
She is forced to shuffle to the left and right every time a frenzy of shoppers try to nudge their way past, all determined to snatch the freshest selection for their masters.
This loyal kitchen maid is buying produce that will pass the lips of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and his Ottoman jewel Hürrem Sultan.
With the strict auditing measures within the palace kitchens, everything must be accounted for and naturally to the highest standards.
I summon the waiter, I have made my selection… The menu reads as follows…
Almond soup (1539). A light almond broth flavoured with grated nutmeg and pomegranate seeds.
Stuffed Quince with Pekmez (1539). Baked quince stuffed with a blend of minced lamb and beef, rice, aromatic herbs, pine nuts, currants and flavoured with grape molasses (pekmez).
“Sudlu Zerde” (1539). Milk pudding flavoured with saffron and honey.
I remain true to my desirable spice market vision and select only meals tagged on the menu as a recipe served in 1539…
I notice, however, that I could have even dreamt all the way back to the year 1469.
This unwavering connection of history, taste and imagination brings an unexpected excitement I have not yet experienced while dining in restaurants across the city of Istanbul.
Asitane Restaurant is certainly a master in fine Ottoman cuisine.
The restored 19th century traditional Ottoman mansion is surrounded by a charming tableau of dilapidated houses and twisting, dreary lanes.
As described on its website, for the past 25 years it has been inviting guests to “explore 600 years of the Ottoman Empire’s flavour legacy”.
The chefs at Asitane were given a challenge and it seems they became detectives to unearth the lost delicacies of an empire which demanded its cooks keep their recipes and cooking methods top secret.
Their detective enthusiasm led them into the 500 year old palace archives.
They researched budget ledgers of palace kitchens and scrolled through memoirs of foreign diplomats and palace visitors.
The result, possibly one of the most eventful menus ever penned by an Istanbul chef.
My main meal arrives.
Like a moat surrounding a grand palace there is a swish of grape molasses beside my neatly stuffed quince.
I take my first bite, close my eyes and float back to my 16th century dream.
I am convinced that within the palace archives, in voluptuous cursive handwriting, there would be evidence that this dish was Hürrem Sultan’s favourite.
How could it not be?
It is exquisite, royal, delicate and sweetly feminine.
Written by Sheldon Heyes
Kariye Camii Sokak No:6
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