A Dinner at the Topkapı Serai - mid-16th Century

Second Course - Meat, Vegetables, & Grains

Historical recipes translated from Eski Osmanlıca (Old Ottoman) into French and Modern Turkish, with historical information written by Stéphane/Stefanos Yerasimos 2005
Translations from French into English and modern recipes by Ellen Perlman (SCA: Urtatim, formerly known as Anahita) 2006

In June 1533 Cornelius de Schepper, ambassador of Ferdinand of Austria, presented himself to the Divan [that is, the Council of Ministers]. He gave a detailed description of his meal. First the dining tables were set up and dressed. Then "bread was brought which was placed upon the aforesaid platter, near to each of us." This was followed by "Little round dishes... such as are customarily filled with vinegar when eating fish in Germany, some of those dishes containing cucumbers preserved in vinegar and some rose preserves."

So i began the second course of this feast by having fresh cucumber pickle and rose petal jam in little dishes, along with bread brought to each table.

Fresh Pickled Cucumbers
Rose Petal Jam
Merserem - Lamb and Chard with herbed yogurt sauce
Mâhmûdiyye - Chicken and Apricots with noodles and almonds
Kâchkül-i kabak - Spiced Stewed Gourds
Rice of Four Colors
Bulghur with Chestnuts
Beverage Syrups -- Morello Cherry and Mulberry


I don't have a period Ottoman recipe and I am not an experienced baker. So rather than face potential disaster, I bought loaves of flat bread about 1 foot wide and 3-1/2 feet long (yes, really this big) at a local halal market. The bread had sesame and nigella seeds in it.

Fresh Pickled Cucumbers

I bought Persian cucumbers - these were dark green, matte skinned, and about 6 inches long, quite unlike the standard American cucumber, and darker and proportionally narrower than standard small "pickling cucumbers". Unfortunately i don't remember how many i bought, i suspect it was about 1 for every 4 anticipated diners. That would mean i had around 18.

Early in the day they were sliced crosswise into disks, around 3/8" thick, and put into a food-safe container with a lid. Next they were tossed with salt, about 1/4 cup. Then about 3/8 cup of white wine vinegar was poured in. And finally, the container was filled with enough water to cover the cucumbers well. I recommend tasting the liquid to make sure the balance between the salt and the vinegar is correct.

The container was covered with its lid and they were let stand on a kitchen counter until serving time. People even asked for refills, and they were all eaten...

Personally, i think the type of cucumber makes a huge difference. So when i make historic-style pickled cucmbers, i never use standard cucumbers, which are shiny, thick, watery, and often a bit bitter. I often use a long, thin, not too moist cucumber which is often sold as "English hot house cucumbers", but which are not particularly English, and are very like a kind of cucumber found in the Medieval Middle East. This was my first time using "Persian cucumbers", and i was very happy with them. However, they are not always available.

I am also thoroughly convinced that the type of vinegar makes an enormous difference in the flavor of the final product. When cooking Near and Middle Eastern dishes, i always use wine vinegar, since this is traditionally and historically the kind used there. I vary between using red and white, since i'm not certain which kind their vinegar was.

Rosepetal Jam

As I do not have a reliable source for fresh rose petals free of pesticides, i did not make my own. I purchased a Turkish brand of rose petal jam at the halal market.

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Original Recipe
Preparation of merserem. Finely chop a bunch of fresh mint, a bunch of parsley, and a bunch of fresh garlic and crush them in a wooden mortar. Mix them with a bowl of ewe's milk yogurt and leave it all to rest from morning to evening and from evening to morning. Brown an okka of fat sheep meat, add some roughly broken chickpeas, a little finely chopped onion, some meatballs, and some chard. When the chard is cooked, mix the yogurt with a little water and pass it through a strainer. Add it to the pot and mix. Add as well some rice. Salt, cook, and withdraw from the fire. If ewe's milk yogurt cannot be found, mix in a bowl of cow's milk yogurt 5 dirhems of starch.
--- Shirvânî, folio 124 recto-verso
Urtatim's Version
Yogurt Sauce

4 bunches parsley
6 bunches mint
1 bunch fresh garlic greens
8 to 12 lb yogurt (approx. 2-2/3 oz. per person)
  1. Finely puree the mint, parsley, and garlic greens with a little yogurt in a blender or food processor.
  2. Mix into remaining yogurt.
  3. Let rest 24 hours.
13 lb. Lamb, cut for stew
3 cups Oil
Water to cover
3 Tb. Salt
5 lb. ground Lamb
2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. ground black Pepper
8 lb. canned Chickpeas, drained
10 medium Onions, finely chopped
8 to 12 bunch Chard, chopped
  1. Brown the meat cut in cubes in the oil, a few pounds at a time, and put into dep pot when each batch is done.
  2. Add 3 Tb. salt and water to cover, and cook until just tender, 45 min. to 1 hour, or more if needed.
  3. Meanwhile, make small meatballs of ground lamb, kneaded with 2 tsp. salt and ground pepper.
  4. When lamb chunks are tender, add chickpeas, onions, meatballs, and chard, and cook until meatballs are done, about 15 to 20 min.
  5. When everything is done, stir in yogurt with herbs.
  6. Cook about 10 to 15 more minutes to warm thoroughly, remove from the fire, and let stand before serving.

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This dish appeared in the winter menu of Topkapı Palace , as well as in menus of the royal circumcision feasts of 1539 where it was dusted with powdered sugar.

Original Recipe
Preparation of mâhmûdiyye. Cut a fat hen in small pieces and put it to cook and then add as well a small amount of almonds, apricots, and white razaki grapes to the same broth. Then brown vermicellis in fresh butter, until they are golden, pour these next into the cold chicken broth, then drain it as if it were for pilaf.
--- Shirvânî, folio 132 recto - verso
Urtatim's Version
25 lb halal Chicken thighs and breasts
Water as needed
1/4 cup Salt, or to taste
6 lb fresh Green Grapes
72 dried Apricots
1-1/4 cup sliced Almonds
1 cup Honey, or to taste (dish should be sweet)
canned or boxed Chicken Broth, if needed
1 lb Butter
4 lb Vermicelli - i used very fine vermicelli from a local halal market - Mexican fideos would work, too
  1. Boil chicken in enough water to cover with salt, until thoroughly cooked.
  2. Extinguish the fire, drain the chicken, and save the broth.
  3. Debone the chicken, cut the meat into large pieces, and set aside.
  4. Halve the grapes and cut the dried apricots in strips - we used kitchen shears.
  5. Put the grapes, apricots, and sliced almonds into the reserved chicken broth.
  6. Warm the honey, then add it to the broth, and stir well.
  7. Melt 1/4 lb. (1 stick) of butter in a frying pan and brown 1 lb of dry vermicellis until golden, then remove noodles to a deep pot. Repeat until all butter is used and all vermicellis are browned.
  8. Then pour the chicken broth and fruits into the noodles, adding more broth if needed, and let noodles soak on a low fire until plump.
  9. Toss chicken with noodles and broth, and serve.

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Kâchkül-i kabak

This dish appears among the recipes added by Shirvânî under the name of kâchkül-i kabak. Kâchkül is the name given to the wooden bowl with which mendicant dervishes beg for food, which would indicate that this is a dish of the masses. It appears in Müntahâb-i chifâ (The Compendium of Health), a Turkish medicinal work from the end of the 14th century. It is the only dish to carry the name kalye into the Turkish cuisine of today. However squash kalye of today is a dish without meat and without spices or other seasoning, other than parsley.

Original Recipe
Preparation of the kâchkül of gourd. Remove the skin and seeds from the fresh gourd, cut it in pieces, and cut as well a little fat meat in stew pieces. Chop also a little parsley and a little onion and crush some chickpeas. Place in a pot a layer of meat, a layer of gourd, and a layer of the rest, until all is arranged, add salt and pepper and season with a little cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Add carrot jam. Cover the pot, place it on the fire, and leave to boil a little. Arrange it all on top of the meat. It is a marvelous dish.
--- Shirvânî, folio 125 recto - verso
Urtatim's Version
8 lb canned Chick Peas
5 onions, chopped
2 cups Sesame Oil, or more if needed
2 quarts Vegetable broth from concentrate
2 bunches Parsley
12 Opo Gourds, peeled, seeded, and cubed Salt to taste (2 to 4 TB)
3 Tb ground Cinnamon
2 Tb ground Ginger
1 Tb ground Cloves
2 tsp ground Pepper
1 lb Carrot Jam (shredded carrots cooked with sugar and water)
  1. Drain then slightly crush chickpeas and remove skins.
  2. Gently cook chopped onions in sesame oil until soft and a little golden.
  3. Make vegetable broth, heat, and add chopped parsley and onions, let cook.
  4. After cooking, add gourds, and chickpeas.
  5. Add salt, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and crushed cloves.
  6. When the gourds are nearly cooked, stir in the carrot jam (jazariyya).
  1. The original uses meat (lamb), which i left out so vegetarians could eat this dish. If you're not worried about feeding vegetarians, add it back in.
  2. Sesame oil: this is light colored, NOT the dark-colored, roasted, East Asian style. I get it at the health food store, and the only brand i've found is Spectrum. The halal markets sometimes sell it much more cheaply, but when i've tried it, i have found to to be bitter and "greasy".
  3. For vegetable broth for large feasts, i use "Better Than Bouillion" brand. This placed second in a recent taste test by "America's Test Kitchen" (on PBS), and it is more economical than any other kind of preparation i've found. Naturally, a homemade broth would be preferable.
  4. Opo gourds are a type of white flower gourd and look like the ones illustrated in the Tacuinum Sanitatis. They are long, pale green, and when young and fresh have a light, refreshing, slightly cucumber-y flavor when raw. They can often be found at South Asia, Southeast Asian, and East Asian markets if you local market doesn't carry them.

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Ottoman-Style Rice of Four Colors

There is no "period" recipe for this, however, there are descriptions of colored rice in the menu lists and visitor memoirs. Based on these, i made the colored rice as follows.

For Each Color of Rice:
1-1/4 lb. = 2-3/4 c. raw Basmati or Thai Jasmine Rice, to make 2-1/2 qt. cooked
5-1/2 cups Broth - we used Vegetable Broth so vegetarians could eat; Ottomans would use Chicken Broth
1/8 lb. Butter (= 1/2 stick = 4 Tb.) We used unsalted. Soften to room temp. or melt on gentle fire or in microwave
  1. Cook rice in broth. We used an electric rice cooker.
  2. When done, put rice into 4 large containers -- we used disposable aluminum roasting pans, which we washed and will re-use -- and add butter, stirring so that butter melts and is evenly distributed.
    NOTE: The rice coooker we had could only cook 1 lb. at a time. So rather than making a separate batch for each color, we cooked all the rice (which took 5 rice cooker cycles), mixed all the rice together with the butter, then separated it into four equal parts
  3. Color each batch according to list below.
  • White - leave as is.
  • Red - toss rice with pomegranate molasses (dibs rumanni or nar ekşisi) and pekmez (Turkish grape molasses). The result will be pink. I know that some other SCA cooks used pomegranate juice and got a brighter color, but in my reading of the historical information, it appears that pomegranate molasses was used, not fresh juice.
  • Yellow - soak saffron in warm water for 15 or 20 minutes and stir so the water is nicely yellow. Then toss saffron water and threads with the rice, fluffing well to distribute the color.
  • Green - puree cooked spinach in a blender or food processor -- i used a 12-oz. box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and warmed -- toss rice with pureed spinach. Chard could also have been used.

To serve, arrange equal parts of each of the four colors artistically on one platter for each table.

NOTE: Ordinary American rice is rather lacking in so many ways - texture, aroma, flavor. So I *highly* recommend using Basmati or Thai Jasmine rice instead for flavor and fragrance.

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Ottoman-Style Bulghur w/Chestnuts

This dish is mentioned in a number of menus from the Palace where it was served in autumn and winter. There is no surviving recipe, however. Therefore I reconstructed this based on what i know of how a number of dishes were cooked in the 15th and 16th centuries, and a comparison with modern Turkish recipes. Modern recipes are often seasoned with ingredients such as dill. I feel certain that in the late 15th century and in the 16th century spices such as cinnamon and ginger were used, however.

Urtatim's Version
Makes 48-60 servings

5 finely chopped Onions
1 lb. Butter, maybe more or less
1 Tb. Salt (may not be needed if using prepared broth)
2 tsp. ground Pepper
2 tsp. ground Cinnamon
2 tsp. ground Ginger
2-1/2 quarts Vegetable Broth (i use "Better than Bouillion" - it's tastier and cheaper per serving than cubes or powders)
5 cups Bulghur Wheat
2-1/2 cups peeled cooked Chestnuts, quartered
  1. Gently saute onion in plenty of butter until soft and beginning to color -- or caramelize, if you have the time.
    Fortunately the stove at the site had a large flat grill surface, so we cooked all the onions for all the dishes at one time, which was done relatively quickly.
  2. Arrange bulghur, chestnuts, and onions evenly in large pans with lids or heavy foil to cover.
  3. Heat broth, then pour over bulghur in pans.
  4. Sprinkle with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and stir well to distribute.
  5. Cover each dish with foil and let stand about 20 to 30 min. During this time the bulgur will absorb the broth.
  6. The added items have a tendency to float to the surface. So stir gently to re-distribute chestnuts and onions before plating and serving.
Modern Variations:
Add chopped dates;
Add soaked currants;
Add toasted pine nuts;
Add cut-up dried apricots;
Mix bulgur with small pasta, such as pre-cooked orzo or broken and soaked fideos;
Season with chopped mint and/or dill and/or scallions.

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First Course
Choice of two soups:
Buyresiyye (kadin tuzlugu shorbasi) - Sweet-&-Sour Meatball Soup
Terbiyeli Tavuk Chorbasi - Chicken Broth Seasoned with Egg-Lemon Mixture)
Mantı - Seasoned ground lamb enrobed in dough wrapper and boiled, and served with garlic yogurt sauce

Second Course (you are here)
Flat Bread (purchased)
Fresh Pickled Cucumbers
Rose Petal Jam (purchased)
Merserem - Lamb and Chard in herbed yogurt
Mâhmûdiyye - Chicken and Apricots with noodles and almonds
Kâchkül-i kabak - Spiced Stewed Gourds
Four Colors of Rice
Bulghur with Chestnuts
Beverage Syrups - Morello Cherry and Mulberry

Dessert Course
Sheker Burek - Almond-paste topped yeasted "cookies"
Senbūse Mukallele - Fried almond-filled pastries
Muhallebi - Delicate Rose-Scented Rice Flour and Milk Pudding
Zerde = "Yellow" - Rice Pudding with Saffron and Nuts
Turkish Coffee (Peet's, of course)
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