Utensils Used in the Ottoman Kitchen


There is quite a lot of information in the archive records, historical documents and travelogues of Western travellers on the equipment used in the Ottoman kitchen. The equipment at the kitchens and collections in Topkapı Palace that served as the imperial administrative centre and the residence of the emperors from a date little afterward the conquest of Istanbul by Mohamed I until the middle of nineteenth century are the material remnants referred to in the documents and sources.

From the time of Mohamed the Conqueror’s reign when the Topkapı Palace was constructed, the meals were cooked in the part called “imperial” of the kitchens. The Topkapı Palace kitchens and their adjunctures are located in the space behind the porch extending along the eastern side of the second yard. It is known that the kitchens were constructed as a tetradomal structure during the Mehmet I’s reign, that the sextadomal imperial kitchen and halva sections were added there under Soliman the Magnificent, that a fire caused by the ignition of the greasy soot in the ceiling during the preparation of a kebab in 1574 and that they were reconstructed with some extensions in conformance with the existing plans by Architect Sinan. These kitchens, consisting of ten sections, each of which had two domes, used to prepare food for the entire Palace population for the emperors and hierarchically down the line. Starting from the southern extremity, the first kitchen belonged to the emperor, followed by those for the emperor’s mother, daughters, odalisques, usherer (who was a person comparable to a modern protocol director), Imperial Council, eunuchs and harem servants, lower palace officials, concubines and servants and the officials of Imperial Council. The tenth section of the kitchen was for the desserts, jams and sherbets that had an important place in the Turkish kitchen.

The imperial kitchen was in charge of preparing a large variety of meals for a single person by a twelve-cook team guided by the chief cook. The latter was responsible also for the porcelain tableware used in the Emperor’s table and during the reception of foreign ambassadors.

The chief storewarden, third in rank in the palace hierarchy, was the superintendent of the and storerooms in the second (inner) yard, the store sergeant was the responsible for all kitchen employees both within and outside of the kitchens.

Similarly, the chief storewarden was held responsible to supervise the cooking of Emperor’s meals, to lay his table, to serve him the meal, to have his jams, syrups, sherbets, pastes and desserts prepared, to keep his pickles and spices and to taste the meals to be served before bringing them to the Emperor. In one part of the storerooms, today occupied by the administrative services of Topkapı Palace, were kept the valuable tablewares of gold, silver and porcelain, special foods and were prepared the sherbets and syrups.

The imperial kitchens employed 15 to 20 chief cooks, working in rotation with 60 cooks and 200 helpers. The kitchens were placed under the responsibility of the Kitchen Warden, nearly equal in rank to that of a vizier. The chief of halva section had a rather large staff. Appointment and discharge of all these employees were entrusted with the chief storewarden.

Meals prepared in the kitchens were brought to the Council, harem and other parts of the palace on large trays by apprentices. Meals of the Emperor was likewise brought by them to the door of Emperor’s apartment and delivered to the apprentices employed there.

Some sources mention the existence of a second kitchen, called the imperial kitchen where solely the Emperor’s meals were cooked. The inscription placed in 1734 or 1735 on the gate connecting the harem to this kitchen states that it had been repaired and renovated under the orders of Sultan Mahmud I. Since the door of the small stone-walled room with a kitchen range and a work table connects to the harem’s Golden Road, it may be assumed that it was the imperial kitchen. Atâ says that this kitchen had two experienced cooks selected from among the hallbardiers and that they were called the kitchen chief and the other the secundo.

The halva kitchen, fireplaces behind the showcases where the Chinese porcelains are exhibited today and the located along the concubine rooms left of the patio to Harem it self and on which the food trays were placed for transportation to the Harem are the vivid relics of the palace kitchen and mental traditions.

We find enough information on the names of the dinner and table paraphernalia from the documents in the palace archives. The kitchen equipment mentioned in various palace books and documents covering the period from fifteenth to nineteenth century should be evaluated together with the Ottoman meal types and mensal traditions. The custom of eating on the floor introduced the oversized round copper trays, the habit of eating from the same pot brought in the large pots, the desire for an after-dinner coffee led to the manufacture of appropriate coffee cups and coffee brewers and the tendency of polishing the meal with a nice scent created the rose attar ewers and censers. Bowls and water ewers for washing hands before and after the meal, towels for drying them and large clothes covering the knees as a substitute of our modern napkins are the other impedimenta used in the table.

Types of instruments frequently mentioned in the archive documents (purchase, tally, gift and other ledgers) are the following: Plate, bowl, tureen, pot, glass, mug, washbowl, water jug, ewer, censer, rose attar dispenser, cup, saucer, salt shaker, amber pot, holy water container, dessert plate, fruit plate, frying pan, spoon, compost bowl, sherbet mug and sherbet cup. The Chinese wares were differentiated into porcelain and ceramic, the Iznik products were called Iznikite or Chinoid, the metal ones were called golden or silver, the European porcelains were classified into Saxon or Czech. Though the exact shapes of some of the wares referred to as broadplate, riceplatter and monochele are not known, they should well be objects conformant to the specific mensal cultures adopted. There are several entries in the archive documents on how the mentioned pieces of equipment would be used. Tursun Bey history states that Mohamed the Conqueror had arranged for the service of sherbet in crystal bowls during the circumcision ceremony of his heirs Bayezid and Mustafa in Edirne in 1457.

Similarly, orders were placed to Istanbul for two thousand small and two hundred large pots for the circumcision in Edirne of Mustafa II and Ahmet II, heirs to the throne of Mehmed IV The Imperial Council Ledger from the year 1568 (Topkapı Palace Archive, #6835) indicates that a large silver tray was laid whenever an ambassador was invited for dinner. Another document (Topkapı Palace Archive #6835) enumerates the names of some of the objects as follows: silver bowl and ewer, compost bowl, bowl saucer, censer, rose attar dispenser, chandelier, coffee cup saucer, copper compost bowl, crystal bowl, dinner tray (metal unknown), hand washing bowl and ewer, yoghurt bowl and lid, pickle bowl and tray, towel, table spread and napkin.

The most important visual sources on the use of these materials are the miniatures in two manuscript elegies in the Topkapı Palace Library. Miniatures in the first of these manuscripts show the 52-day and 52-night circumcision ceremony held in 1582 for Prince Mehmet, son of Sultan Murad III. Many metal, ceramic and porcelain tablewares are shown in them. Platters, jars, pots, cups, trays, bowls and saucepans are the most frequently used forms. In the scene depicting the procession of halva servers, the cooks appear to be preparing halva in a copper saucepan with a long-handled ladle. The historian Selânikî writes in connection with this event that fireplaces and kitchens were erected in front of the public bakery at hippodrome’s southern side and that the kitchens were equipped with 1500 huge saucepans and trays. White, green, blue, olive green and moiré bowls were brought from the imperial kitchen and chinaware warehouse in Istanbul for use in the feast meals, that 237 Iznik pots and 204 platters plus 100 monocheles were bought from the local market for use in case the existing stocks might not suffice according to Selânikî.

The second source is the manuscript titled “Surname-i Vehbi” on the circumcision ceremonies of four princes in 1720. There are 137 miniatures made by Levni in this manuscript covering this 15-day and 15-night ceremony. The twin tary-and-table scheme appears to be persistently repeated in all feast scenes shown in the miniatures. The lidded metal plates, bowls and pots, blue and white bowls and plates (with no way of ascertaining whether they were of China or Iznik origin), jewel-inlaid porcelain pots, sets of censers, carafes, spoons, silver basins and ewers and coffee cups were pictured in these miniatures. The finance officers had striven to find materials from all parts of the Empire for this ceremony and, within a very short time, were made available ten thousand large wooden trays to be used as tables, one thousand small trays for distribution of sweets, ten thousand carafes of sherbet, one thousand ducks, eight thousand chicken, two thousand turkeys, three thousand roosters, two thousand pigeons, fifteen thousand oil lamps and ten thousand oil bowls for the illumination masts. The Topkapı Palace Library has another copy of this manuscript. 140 miniatures of this manuscript, believed to have been prepared for Grand Vizier İbrahim Pasha, were made by an artist of the Levni school and they depict the same scheme as in the original miniatures.

Both miniatures have the bowl pillage scenes. The bowl pillage is the name of dinners offered to the people and janissaries on ceremonial occasions. All plates and bowl laid on the tables are allowed to be pillaged together with the meals in them. Although the types of the container shown in the bowl pillage miniatures cannot be determined in any degree of certainty, they are believed to be terra cotta or copper.

As for the kitchenwares in Topkapı Palace collections, the Chinese porcelain collections consisting of 10.358 pieces may be explained by the interest displayed by the Sultans to these commodities. Even before the Topkapı Palace was constructed, the Ottoman dynasty was using porcelain wares at their Edirne Palace (Refer to the footnote #6 in this connection). The Chinese porcelains, produced in China and exported from as early as the thirteenth century to the Islamic and Middle-East countries, were used rather extensively also in the Ottoman palaces. The belief that the celadonic containers, referred to as the mertebanî in the Ottoman records, reveal the poison put into them. As these porcelains, continuously gathered from the time of construction of the Topkapı Palace and increasing in number from the sixteenth century onward, were manufactured for export to the Islamic countries, they were produced in shapes and forms suited for the Ottoman tables. The collection contains a large number of oversized plates and bowls. Some of the bowls have porcelain lids; yet the majority were later fitted with gold-plated copper lids. Cups, basins, ewers, censers, rose attar dispensers, carafes and canteens are the other important components of this collection.

A lot of information is available in historical records on the use of Chinese porcelains. Describing the dinner given to him by the Grand Vizier in Edirne, Covel writes that the service was made in expensive wares, cheladonic and crystal bowls, sherbet and coffee cups were used.

D’Ohsson narrates that all emperors used only porcelain after Soliman the Magnificent, that the green Chinese porcelains were made the formal wares for official dinners. According to Thevenot, “A palace apprentice said that the meals of the Emperor were served in ceramic wares made of Chinese day that are more valuable than the ceramic because they were panacea for the poison. He (Soliman the Magnificent) has fifty gold-plated silver or copper plates. Porcelain and terracotta goods are used in the dinners given to the ambassadors in the Supreme Council before they were received by the Sultan”.

Repair of broken Chinese porcelains or their use in different functions after modification by the Ottoman artisanry shows the importance ascribed to these wares. Evliya Çelebi narrates in his travelogue that there were twenty five repair masters in the guild of artisans, that they fused the broken porcelains together again and that there were ten workshops for it. Many Chinese porcelain pots so repaired still exist in the palace collection.

Names of Iznik porcelains are mentioned on several occasions in the archive documents; yet they are not among the items in the collection. This is probably due to the better care taken of the Chinese porcelains that are stronger, more expensive and more preferred. They had, however, found a greater appreciation outside of the palace.

The second most important group of items in the palace kitchens consisted of copper and gold-plated metal objects. Large water boiling containers, hammered round-bottomed halva saucepans pots in various dimensions with lids, frying pans, large and small trays, coffee service sets ( made up of coffee boilers, roasting pans, grinders etcetera), bowls, ewers (for arrow root, decakyles, milk and water), mortars, scales, ladles and sieves are the important parts of this collection having around 2000 pieces. Hans Dernschwam who visited Istanbul and Anatolia in the sixteenth century stated that Turks had their meals in sitting position, that they placed a leather spread on the ground on which they placed a tinned copper tray holding two or three platters of food, spoons and a pile of bread, that they covered their knees with a napkin. Saying that the custom was to use tinned and shiny meal pots in Istanbul, Dernschwam made several drawings of these pots.

In the copper collection are also around four hundred gold-plated metal lids dated to seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. We know from the miniatures that these lids were placed on the plates and this use is substantiated by the number of lids existing in the collection.

Terracotta saucepans and bowls with lids, halva bowls used for distribution, large grain urns, marble plates, trays, water mugs and sugar bowls are the other important items in the collection.

The gold and silver sets were used by the emperors and highest-ranking palace officials. Since the religious tenets forbade having meals in gold and silver table sets, the emperors turned perforce to the use of tellow Chinese porcelains. An Imperial Council document from 1698 deals with this issue. M. Baudier furnishes the following information regarding this matter: “The Emperor drinks a fruit juice, lime juice or a sherbet during his meals. He uses an embroidered porcelain or coconut shell spoon placed on a special open box. No gold objects are used and highly expensive and rare yellow Chinese porcelains are selected for this purpose”.

The use of gold and silver wares during the reign of Bayezid II was abandoned by Murad III who switched to porcelains. However, the gold and silver items in the collection suggest that this ban was not applied in too strict a manner. Silver trays were put on when foreign ambassadors visited the palace.

A palace neophyte named Bobovi describes the Emperor’s meal at Topkapı Palace in the seventeenth century as follows: “He (The Emperor) takes his meals alone at his apartment or in the garden. He is served boiled, baked or boiled mutton or fowls, sweets of which the baklava was the most preferred one, milk or rice custard. Instead of drinking water during the meal, he consumed a compost from a large bowl. Jesters entertained the Emperor during the meal. All foods were served in cheladonic platters. The hands used for a fork were washed with soap after the meal and a pleasant scent was created by burning amber and aloe. He refrains from using gold or silver sets since they were probibited by the religion, though the palace women were not bound by this rule”.

According to the available records, only one brunch and one pre-sundown meal were taken in the palace. The plates were placed on slightly raised trays around which the eaters set on cushions with crossed legs, hands were washed by attendants in basin and ewer sets and dried with towels. The knees were covered with large napkins, which could be one for each person or a long one making a full round around the tray. The only instruments used in the meal were the spoons; knives and forks were absent. Everyone partook his food from a large central bowl. Food was brought to the mouth with three fingers of the right hand. Shapes and sizes of spoons changed depending on the food served. There was no custom of drinking water during the meal; sherbet or compost taken in the end replaced the water. Following the dinner, there was a incense, rose attar and coffee ritual. Porcelain, gold-plated metal or glass attar dispensers and censers abound in the palace collection.

With the onset of westernisation movement, the European porcelains had begun to push the Chinese porcelains out of the market. More than five thousand pieces of European porcelains are the obvious evidences of this change. These items, consisting of Austrian, French, German and Russian porcelains and ceramics, were imported goods manufactured according to the ottoman taste.

The first Ottoman products coming out of Beykoz and Yıldız porcelain factories in the nineteenth century were mostly gift and decorative items and did not make much headway into the tables.

As for the use of these items outside of the palace, it may be said that they existed also in the manors of well-to-do people and of palace officials. Pursuant to the system of confiscation dictated by the religious law, under which the titles of property of deceased or dismissed statesmen, palace employees and officials became State goods, under which the titles of property of deceased or dismissed statesmen, palace employees and officials became State goods, more than nineteen thousand Chinese and European porcelains were acquired by the palace. Lady Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador who came to Istanbul in 1716, with the following words the dinner given for her by Hafize Sultan, the favourite of Emperor Mustafa: “Sherbet was brought in Chinese porcelain cups. The lids and saucers were, however, of solid gold. After the dinner, my hands were washed in a golden basin and dried with a towel”.

Tableware used in the almshouses, caravanserails and homes are not, for economic reasons, so varied as those used in the palace. In those places, terracotta and tinned copper pots, wooden spoons, wooden or copper trays were the equipment seen in the tables, in which the menus contained a lesser number of different foods.