Kathryn Tomasetti is an award-winning food and travel writer whose work appears in Delicious and The Guardian. Her favourite food is artichokes.
The world’s largest contiguous empire was ruled from Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace. The Ottoman super-state was fuelled by a mammoth kitchen. Here 1,000 chefs could pair ingredients from the Moroccan Atlantic (salt cod) to the Persian Gulf (medjoul dates).
The Ottoman kitchens hosted a creamery, a bakery and a dedicated beverage kitchen. Plus a harem counter, which no doubt prepared dietetic light bites to keep concubines nubile. At the top sat the chesnidjibashi, or imperial food taster. This brave soul would test each dish on the sultan’s behalf. And if a kitchen staffer tried to poison the supreme Ottoman, he’d bite it first.
The kitchen’s most frequently requested dessert put the sweet into meat. The sultan’s favourite was Tavuk göğsü: a milk pudding - with a full chicken breast thrown in. After simmering the bird into rillettes, the stock was thickened with sugar, cinnamon and cornflour. The resulting flan wasn’t spooned like a blancmange but sliced like, well, a joint of chicken. Yummy.
As sultanic mores become fodder for the hoi polloi, so wider Turkey tucked into chicken. Tavuk göğsü is on the menu at Istanbul’s top restaurants, including Saray Muhallebicisi near the Topkapı Palace. If you’re following a YouTube video to make it at home, use only organic milk and a free range bird like a Parson's Nose Sutton Hoo, raised in Suffolk’s rural meadows.
Other sweet-toothed sultans pioneered ever fattier desserts. Avya tatlısı, or quince pudding, is a baked fruit course laced with syrup and cloves. The whole dish is then smeared with kaymak, a clotted cream made from the simmered milk of Anatolian water buffaloes. Künefe uses pistachios and cheese to clog arteries further. Expect a baked tray of shredded wheat with additional sugar-syrup soaking.
As Ottoman power declined, even skinny harem girls binged on sugar. Worse still, the Topkapı Palace heirs became ever stranger. The empire’s nutty nadir came in the form of Ibrahim the Mad, who lusted for pudding-loving women. A casting call for the empire’s fattest lady resulted in the 150kg mass of an Armenian bride. Ibrahim named his new wife Şekerpare after his favourite dessert: soft almond ball pastries bathed in lemon syrup.