Ingredients of an Ottoman thriller

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Even in mid-case, it was impossible to keep Yashim, the flawed Turkish hero at the heart  of his series of detective stories, out of the kitchen, reveals author  Jason Goodwin

When I started to write The Janissary Tree, the first of Yashim’s five adventures set in Ottoman Istanbul, I had no idea that Yashim would turn out to be a cook. He was the sultan’s investigator, he had a poignant disability, and the Janissaries – the crack Ottoman infantry – were about to make trouble. Those, I thought, were all the ingredients I needed for a thriller.

But the cooking came through. I first came to Istanbul on foot, hiking for months from the Baltic coast, and I still can’t think of  the city without dreaming of food. After months of plain fare, we ate fish in a restaurant suspended under the old Galata bridge, watching the ferries come and go. We ate mutton and aubergine wrapped in a paper parcel in the Grand Bazaar. Bread of exceptional freshness appeared at every table. Cauldrons bubbled, full of sweet or spicy vegetable stews, with morsels of tender lamb spitted and roasted over the charcoal braziers whose scent drifted through the air. On the shores of the Golden Horn we ate mackerel sandwiches, the fish just taken from the Bosphorus, filleted and grilled on the boats. After months of scarcity and monotony, Istanbul seemed like a gingerbread house.

It had its fairy-tale palace, too. Overlooking the Bosphorus and the Asian coast, Topkapi was home to the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In the palace kitchens, with pantries, store-rooms, and offices for teams of clerks who kept meticulous records, hundreds of chefs worked to feed as many as 10,000 people in a day. The soup, pilaff, helva, vegetable dishes, meats, breads, pastries were produced by master chefs with as many as 100 apprentices. They had their own dormitories, a fountain, a mosque, and a hammam where they could bathe.

Stupendous quantities of food came into the palace. In 1723 the butcher’s bill listed 30,000 head of beef, 60,000 sheep, 20,000 veal calves, 10,000 kids, and 200,000 fowl. Half a million bushels of chickpeas. Twelve thousand pounds of salt. The palace tore through food like the city that surrounded it, at the confluence of trade routes that stretched across the Ottoman empire from the Balkans to Egypt, and from the borders of Georgia to the Adriatic.

To its soldiers, and its shepherds, it was an empire of mountains – the Balkans, the Rhodopes, the Pindus, the Taurus, the Nur, the Pontic Alps, the Caucasus, the Hejaz, the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, among others. An empire, too, of winds – the dry summer Meltemi or Etesian of the Aegean islands; the cool Gregale; the oppressive Khamsin of Egypt, and its grim Simoom; the icy Kosava of Serbia; the rough afternoon Lodos that chops at the Aegean, like the northerly Maestro, cousin to the French Mistral; the Bora of the Adriatic; the damp Levant; and the Sirocco whipping up the tides in Venice, known in the Balkans as Jugo, and on Malta cryptically as Xlokk.

Egypt was the Ottoman’s granary. Anatolia was their fruit-bowl. The mountain pastures of Europe and Asia provided them with sweet mutton and cheese. Every region had its speciality, like the delicate and delicious trout of Lake Ohrid on the border between Macedonia and Albania, which were carried overland, live, to Topkapi palace for the sultan’s feasts. The best of everything arrived there in its season – watermelon and green onions from Bursa, figs from the Aegean coast, fruit from the Black Sea. Vegetables came from market gardens snuggled up beneath the ancient Byzantine city walls, and different districts of the city became famous for certain products, like the clotted cream of Eyup, or the flaky pastries of Karakoy. The garlic came from Izmit, lemons from Mersin, cheeses in skins from the mountains of Moldavia. The imperial palace, in a city of imperial appetite, produced a cookery defined along with the Chinese and the French as one of the three great food cultures of the world, a culture that today underpins the cookery of Albania as of Lebanon, Greece as well as Turkey.

I put the food in my novels, because when Yashim entertains his friends to dinner, he invites readers into the half-lost world of 19th century Istanbul. Now I’ve compiled those and other recipes into a cook book, Yashim Cooks Istanbul. There are delicious family dishes like a Greek fisherman’s stew, pumpkin soup or aubergine chicken wraps, alongside more unusual recipes for feasts, from stuffed mackerel to hazelnut and lemon pilaf, or fish poached in paper. They are interwoven with snatches of Yashim’s stories, and illustrated with some of the familiar sights of Yashim’s world.

I urge you to grow lots of flat leaf parsley, mint and dill, which are traditional ‘warming’ herbs, as well as marjoram and sage. There is nothing sadder than a sprig of herbs when a bunch would do. It is positively un-Ottoman.

And while most of these recipes specify precise quantities, bear in mind the fate of Empress Eugenie’s personal chef.

‘The French emperor Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, spent a week in Istanbul as the Sultan’s guests in 1862. The Empress was so taken with a concoction of aubergine puree and lamb that she asked for permission to send her own chef to the kitchens to study the recipe. The request was graciously granted by their host, and the chef duly set off with his scales and notebook. The Sultan’s cook slung him out, roaring, ‘An imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes, and his nose!’

Jason Goodwin is a best-selling crime writer and historian
Yashim Cooks Istanbul by Jason Goodwin is published by Argonaut Books, £25. For a taste of Jason’s recipes visit