The Turks eat poor wretched food that makes one shiver, and generally they cannot cook, especially their women not at all. All their fare is only czorba, which is like soup. But [listed] in the following, there are several dishes as cooked for great men and masters.
Not the most audacious start, admittedly, and not a view on Turkish food that we or most of our guests would agree with, but certainly an interesting statement. Its author was indeed an interesting and unusual man, a quintessential Renaissance Man in the true sense of that word – but you have almost certainly never heard of him before: his name was Hans Dernschwam.
Dernschwam was born in Brüx in the Kingdom of Bohemia (now Most in the Czech Republic) in 1494. He studied in Vienna and Leipzig and spent some time in Rome, where he worked as an assistant to the Humanist scholar (and later bishop) Girolamo Balbi. He spent most of his adult life in Austrian-controlled Hungary. There, he represented the immensely wealthy and powerful Fugger family, essentially Central Europe's first international mercantile bankers and venture capitalists, who owned mines in the region. Commerce aside, he pursued antiquarian interests, collecting, recording and publishing ancient (Roman) inscriptions found on his travels. Dernschwam (alternatively Thurnschwamb) probably died on his estate in Schattmannsdorff (modern Častá, Slovakia) in 1568 or 1569; his immense collection of books ended up being incorporated into the library of the Imperial Court in Vienna.
A Renaissance Man indeed! Namely, a man who cleverly used the growing economic and intellectual opportunities that his era offered: to study, to make his fortune – and to travel.
When, in 1553, the Bohemian King (and future German Emperor) Ferdinand I sent an official delegation to the Court of Sultan Süleyman I (“the Magnificent”) at Constantinople/Istanbul, Dernschwam, not a young man any more, offered to join at his own expense. The trip was to take two years, leading the group much further east than expected, via Ankara to Amasya in North Central Anatolia, where the Sultan was based during a military campaign.
Dernschwam wrote a long account of the voyage, one of the earliest and most detailed such descriptions by a Western visitor to the Ottoman Empire, which had only captured Constantinople a little over a century before his visit. The report benefits from Dernschwam's academic background, from his experience dealing with foreign cultures (that said, it is not free of prejudice by any means) and from his antiquarian interests – but that's for a future post.
One of the most striking aspects of Dernschwam's text is the frequent reference to food. Like us - see our food tours - he appears to see the cuisine as a major aspect to the areas he travels. Not only does he demonstrate a merchant's eye for available produce and its cost, but he also shows an interest in Turkish food preparation, describing cooking methods and dishes. Often, he even provides a phonetic version of their Turkish name (his text is written in what is known as Early New High German, famously used by Martin Luther for his translation of the bible a decade earlier): thus, his “czorba” in the quote above is çorba, then as now the Turkish term for soup. In spite of that commendable effort, there is no evidence that he knew very much Turkish, so we must certainly take his terminology in that language, so important in this context, with a pinch of salt.
What is most surprising, however, is how recognisable much of what he describes still is, nearly 500 years later. Especially if we consider that the Turkish cuisine he describes is one that precedes the introduction of the New World cultivars that have become such a strong element of Mediterranean cuisine, namely potatoes and tomatoes, there is much in his account that we can readily recognise. So, let's have a look at a small selection of the man's observations on Turkish cuisine.
First, printzsch czorba. Printzsch means rice. One boils it in a mutton meat broth, adds lemon juice and vinegar and at times a little pepper, making this into a thick soup, not a gruel.
Printzsch? Indeed, the Turkish word for rice is still pirinç, and a soup much as the one Dernschwam describes is still a standard soup base in Turkish cooking. In Greece, the addition of egg has transformed it into avgolemono, also a standard soup and sauce base.
Also, mutton: cut in small pieces, one adds fried onion; it is served dry [with no sauce] as a dish.
Indeed, a simple mutton or lamb stir-fry is still a common dish in Turkey and much of the Balkans, although more elaborate versions prevail today. Also, this is the ancestor of döner kebab.
Notably, Dernschwam does not refer to any dishes made of ground meat, such as the famous and omnipresent köfte. Were they not yet popular, did he simply not come across them, or did he find them unremarkable?
Printzsch or rice: boiled simply in water, then fried in fat, called pilaw, served in a bowl, with no sugar added.
A classic description of a basic pilav – one of the most typical of Turkish dishes. Today, we tend to fry it first, then boil it, though. The text implies that rice was already known in a sweet dish, some kind of rice pudding, in Central Europe at the time.
Printzsch or rice: boiled in honey-water, served with saffron, served in a bowl (…). Almonds, previously fried in fat, are sprinkled on top. Followed by various fruit, this is a meal for a great lord.
Various versions of sweet rice dishes are common in Turkish pastry shops – this one is zerde, a festive rice pudding flavoured with saffron.
Being a man of commercial interests, Dernschwam also noted where the rice came from:
Rice is brought by Alexandrian ships in large quantities from Egypt, it's the Turks' best food.
They cut up chickens and boil them in a printzsch czorba. When serving, they add parsley and cinnamon bark.
Definitely: a familiar Turkish chicken soup. In Greece, cinnamon can still be found as an ingredient in this context!
Young pumpkins and podliczschan are hollowed out and stuffed with mutton hacked into small pieces and also garlic, the whole is seasoned and salted and quickly boiled. Over this and similar dishes they simply pour jugurt, which is salted sour milk (…).
Podliczschan is patlıcan, the Turkish word for eggplant/aubergine. Meat-stuffed aubergine is most certainly around as a famous dish, and goes well with yoghurt. But it was only the introduction of tomatoes that allowed for the creation of imam baıldı!
Also: mutton, chopped into small pieces, a spoonful of which is placed on a vine leaf and rolled up like a krapfen [a pastry with a filling]. They add hacked sour plums and boil the whole. This is considered a good and fine dish, the vine leaves for it are on sale everywhere.
Dolma! Virtually unchanged and a mainstay of both Greek and Turkish food – even the sour plums (erik) can still be associated with this dish.
This is also considered a delicious dish: One boils rice and milk and flour together, adds butter, sugar, rose water and nutmeg, the dish is called muhelleble.
Another remarkable incident of continuity: the dessert is still around, and called muhallebi. In some regional cuisines it still uses rice.
Also, starch flower is beaten with egg-white. Of this, a little or a spoonful is poured into a warm pan to make something like a wafer. Of these, one makes as many as one likes. Chopped almonds or nuts, mixed with sugar, to the thickness of a finger, spiced with rose water and nutmeg. Then, one is placed upon the other and served: this, too is considered a fine and tasty dish.
Presumably, Dernschwam was served an early version of baklava on this occasion. Another dessert he describes is helva (halwa to him), but his description is a little odd:
Amongst other things they have a white confectionery that they call halwa, made of almonds, honey and egg white. They boil this in a large pan above glowing embers, it is tough as glue, stirred with a piece of wood and then cut in pieces with a strong knife. It is considered a fine confectionery like marzipan. On touching it, one can't clean one's hands enough. It may be hard, but melts in the mouth, and tastes like one is eating sweet chalk.
The description of the texture (both stickiness and chalkiness) is spot-on, actually, but the helva he describes is – at least today – made of sesame (tahini) and honey. Maybe he got it wrong just that once? There is also a semolina-based dessert like Greek halva that goes by the same name.
He appears to have been a little puzzled by yoghurt, a puzzlement he incidentally shares with Western European travel writers all the way into the 20th century:
(…) Jugurth is their best food; found in all villages, it is boiled milk salted like sauerkraut. That's why nearly everyone carries a spoon in their belt. They also carry such sour milk with them in a linen bag while travelling across the country, adding water to it. Other nations would get ill from this, but it doesn't harm them at all.
Dernschwam offers some observations on meal settings, timings and even on associated social issues:
It's the Turk's habit to eat early. Even if he's just gotten up, he eats a czorba, a soup of wheat. They crumble bread into that, eat little meat. In Constantinople, several thousand live only on donations distributed outside mosques and churches from morn to eve. There are many poor people who still want to be considered fine.
The Turks eat and sit all on the ground, having – as one can – spread a rug or sheet on the ground, they sit around it, without a table. Those who can may use a sophra, a round leather support on which one places a wide flat bowl of wood, copper or tin, in which one places a dish, or two or three, to which they add bread and a spoon (...). No tablecloth is used, unless one wants to make it impressive (...)
There are many specialised street traders in Constantinople, who tend to make all manner of cakes or pancakes, baked and fried in fat, in various shapes and filled with confectioneries, herbs and eggs. Especially when the Turks hold their four-week bayram, they eat much such food in the evening. It's all made with honey, in part also with sugar, so that one will have an appetite (a desire to eat) after consuming it.
The preponderance of street vendors selling very specific delicacies is still a feature of Istanbul! The habit to break the ramadan fast with a snack before the proper meal is also an ongoing one.
They also eat quite a lot of fruit, it is their best food, even before it is fully ripe. All around Constantinople, they gobble up the grapes in autumn. They also preserve them, boil a sweet drink from them, as from all other fruit.
Fruit preserves are still a common treat in Western Turkey (perhaps even more so in Greece). Grape syrup has its role in both cuisines, but especially in Turkey, where wine is not traditionally part of the menu. Other fruit syrups also have their uses! His account of what fruit was available is a little ambiguous, as you will see. It should be noted that he usually mentions prices, which we have omitted here:
There is no good fruit to be had in Constantinople, as one finds outside. What is brought there by sea from other places is plucked too early, bland in taste and usually damaged. Especially, there are no good apples, only sweet, tough cooking apples, also no pears (…). One finds all kinds of cherries in good quantities and large ones as in Hungary, they are of good size but quite expensive (…). Same for pomegranates, also cheap, in Turkish called nar, they also grow in Constantinople (…). Figs also grow in Constantinople, and are brought there by sea, they, too, are cheap (…). Lemons and citron are brought in good numbers by sea, and from Italy large barrels with lemon juice, which the Turks use with their mutton (…). Ships from Alexandria bring a lot of dates to Constantinople, sold by weight and cheaply, they are not highly regarded. In Turkish, datli means sweet, explaining the name, in Arabic kurma, in Greek phinithia. Yellow apricots are available in large quantity and good size, the Turks boil a sweet drink from them, also from various candied fruit, such as pears, peach, sour cherry.
Dernschwam only mentions beans and pulses in passing, as poor people's food, along with cheese. He also says a little about Turkish bread (which he dislikes) and fish (which he considers bad value). Judging from his account, olive oil did – remarkably – not have a major presence in Ottoman Istanbul at the time:
They (...) bring tree oil in large barrels across the sea to Galata. The Turks otherwise use sesame oil (...). It is a tasty oil, also used by the Jews.
The reference to Galata would associate it mostly with the city's Greek and Venetian community. His implication that different ethnic groups prefer different oils is certainly interesting: it implies that even in his day, Istanbul was a city including various culinary traditions.
Perhaps surprisingly, Dernschwam does not refer to any particular use of spices or herbs – they are only mentioned in passing (except parsley). The relative spiciness of some Turkish food as we know it today is not among his observations and the one mention he makes does not ring very familiar now:
They use mustard, pouring it over mutton.
Since Dernschwam was at least to some extent German – as am I – I'll give a final quote on what must have been a huge relief to him: there was sauerkraut to be found in 16th century Turkey!
Krauth [cabbage] is found, but the Turks don't know how to cook it with beef like the Hungarians. They tend to pickle it, as is done elsewhere.
We will certainly not feed you sauerkraut on our tours or cruises (at least until we offer them in Central Europe) – but many of the dishes referred to in Dernschwam's account are part of an ongoing and living – and developing – culinary tradition that is well worth exploring. You can immerse yourself in the local cuisine on our Gastronomic tour in Turkey, where it is the main theme, or you can enjoy aspects of it on all of our tours in Turkey.