When a high school friend of his father’s bought some antiquarian books over to his home, Batur Durmay’s whole family founded a long-term interest in Ottoman cuisine. One of the books was a reprint of first kitchen ledgers from the Topkapi Imperial Palace in their native Istanbul. It was dated 1469 and inside was recipes about 45 dishes served at the ancient Ottoman courts. Another was a book describing the royal festivities of 1539 celebrating the circumcision of Suleiman the Magnificent’s sons Cihangir and Beyazit. Within this text they found the names of around 100 dishes served at the feast, but no ingredients or recipes so the Durmays turned themselves into culinary detectives.
Together with a team of researchers, academics and scholars of Ottoman history, they leafed through stacks of documents in the historical archives underneath Topkapi Palace and in national libraries, searching for clues on how the sultan’s cooks had created the dishes 400 years ago.
After about a year’s research, they had come up with 20 – 25 dishes that were ready to be served to guests at their restaurant Asitane.
‘We saw it more as a hobby,’ Durmay recalls of the opening of the restaurant, which is situated close to the Byzantine Walls and neighbouring the magnificent Chora Church. ‘At the beginning of the 1990s, there were practically no Turkish restaurants in Istanbul where my father could take his business associates and so we would always end up hosting them at our house. The new restaurant was supposed to change that.’
‘Also in 1990 Ottoman cuisine was unknown, even in Turkey,’ Durmay explains.
His father founded the restaurant and Batur took over the management four years ago. Although at first the idea of recreating dishes fit for the palate of a sultan was superseded by simply a high-end eatery, they soon realized there was a wealth of potential in the annals of their city’s extensive history.
Ottoman history has long been neglected in Turkey and in some cases even looked down upon, he says. This is because it was difficult to find scholars able to read the old Ottoman script in Turkey but in the last decade all things Ottoman recently came back into fashion with designers, artists, writers and filmmakers all started to take an interest in the period for their work. And with the highly successful TV show “Muhteşem Yüzyil” (Magnificent Century) that depicts the life and times of revered sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and for which Asitane provides catering and consultancy, the Ottoman Empire has, and successfully so, gone pop culture in Turkey.
‘During the Ottoman period, Istanbul was a major trading city,’ Durmay explains. ‘Both the silk and the spice routes ended here, and all wares were registered in order to be taxed before they could be shipped further west.” Thus when the Asitane team began their search official harbour documents gave a very detailed impression on what was available in the city, at what price, and in which quantity. Accurate registers that listed the amount, origin and date of purchase of every food item that entered the imperial kitchens helped further and finally, finding the right measures and the right way to prepare a dish was a matter of trial and error.
Since they opened they have recreated more than 380 different recipes and they are still counting:. ‘We are still financing the research, and every year we add further dishes to our menu,’ Durmay says. As the recipes were only handed down mouth-to-ear from master to student, all scrolls and documents dealing with food – types of ingredients, spices, foreign fruit or vegetables – had to be cross-referenced.
But how about the utensils, kitchen equipment and eating etiquette; did they also recreate these aspects?
‘It is impossible to serve the dishes we recreated as they did 400 years ago,’ he laughs. ‘Then, several people would be gathered around on table and would be eating out of one rice dish together with spoons they had brought with them and they would be wiping their hands on the tablecloth after they were done.’
Asitane combines Ottoman imperial cuisine from the 15th to the 19th century with principles of contemporary fine dining. It has attracted illustrious guests; Turkish ministers have dined here, as have royals from Europe, Qatar, Saudia Arabia or the UAE.
Taking their clues from the kitchens of an empire that covered three continents, combining the taste of the Balkans with those of the Maghreb and the Middle East, chances are they will not be running out of ideas anytime soon. ‘Ottoman cuisine was much more than the kebab,’ he smiles.
Photographer: Jonathan Lewis