The ancient art of Ottoman cuisine

When thinking of Turkish food, what immediately comes to mind is kebab, lahmacun and köfte. However, there is a lot more to find in the Ottoman kitchen. The Asitane restaurant in Istanbul has taken 500-year-old recipes from the palace archives and turned them into an ancient culinary experience.

Text by Gijs de Boer, photos by Mila Emmer

The ancient Ottoman Empire covers a time span of 622 years, which lasted until the First World War. This culture goes hand in hand with a great history when it comes to culinary heritage. Ingredients like yoghurt, various types of nuts and a large variety of herbs and spices are signature elements for the Turkish cuisine. Especially the city of Istanbul, known as Constantinople during the Ottoman Empire, contributed to the richness and diversity.

Nowadays, when looking at identity and culture, modern Turkish people try to preserve what needs to be preserved. The Asitane restaurant, in the Fatih area, anticipates to this by reviving ancient Ottoman palace food and cooking techniques that where used centuries ago.

While standing in front of the restaurant, which is a restored Ottoman mansion, the classic Turkish culture can be felt. The iron ornamented canopy with lanterns at both sides, the garden surrounded by chestnut trees, the marble-looking steppingstone in front of the foyer create a feeling of exclusiveness. Once inside the foyer you can immediately smell a hint of mint and coriander. A subtle marble stat table is in the center of the room. The three trays with business cards match Asitane’s mission to ‘reintroduce the authentic Ottoman kitchen to the world’.

Comments on TripAdvisor have raised the expectations. “Every dish is tasteful and special and can’t be compared with anything”. And: “The quality of the dishes and the service is excellent. The courtyard garden is very atmospheric”.

Quiet bubble

It isn’t a busy night at The Asitane. Except for a small group with two children and a couple in the back, there are no other guests. Once guided to the classic – but not Ottoman – decorated table a hint of old Turkish music can be heard. It sounds like a live band playing in the back and creates a comfortable and calm dining setting. However, occasionally the quiet bubble is brutally disturbed by a screaming kid at one of the tables in the back.

The disturbance is not enough to get distracted from the nice old crocheted seats and beige curtains. Nonetheless, it doesn’t feel like an Ottoman palace, but more like sitting in the dining room of your grandmother. While the waiter has a refined technique when it comes to pouring wine, he can’t prevent a drop from escaping and penetrating the virgin white tablecloth.

The menu consists of typical Ottoman palace dishes with the year of origin behind it. The chestnut terrine soup (1469) speaks to the imagination and although it doesn’t look very tasty, the flavors are on point. Before the main course is served the waiter returns to refill the wine glasses. This time he passes with flying colors. The main course consists grilled lamb fillets seasoned with cinnamon, tarragon, bay leaves, figs and black pepper (1844).

Next, a bulb of brownish rice with two thin pieces of lamb draped over it is served. Again, it doesn’t look very promising, but after the first bite; the sweet figs, spicy pepper and well salted lamb creates a mouth full of matching flavor. “It was a taste I wasn’t used to. So, at the first bite I thought ‘wow’ there’s quite a lot of cinnamon and just a little salt in it, that’s a crazy combination for a savory dish”, my culinary friend Mila says. Julia, who has joined us roo, adds: “I love the fact that I am actually eating the exact same dish as the Ottoman Royalty did in the 15 hundreds. That’s pretty cool.”

It is striking, because of the old cooking techniques and classic combinations of ingredients, it cannot be compared with any other ‘modern’ restaurant. While waiting for desert one of the kids in the back breaks the quietness again; “Daddy, I want ice cream”. “They don’t serve that here” the dad responds.

What they do serve is a platter with three different types of halva (1539) with a different flavor each. The flavors are roasted flour, including pistachios and honey, almond and starch. By far the best-looking dish. The diamond shaped treats look like Belgium bonbons. Unfortunately, the eye is misleading, as it tastes bland and dry.

All in all, it was quite a surprising evening. The classic dishes and old techniques created flavors and textures you can’t imagine anymore within the daily cuisine. The food brings you to the old palaces of long forgotten Sultans and gives an insight in why food is part of culture.