How Istanbul's food was provided during Ottoman Times

Published 06.11.2019 02:07
Updated 20.12.2019 01:28

Today's Istanbul constitutes a vast consumer market, with the issue of food being the highest priority to the city's ever-increasing number of inhabitants.

But this was much the case in its Ottoman heyday, too. Back then, the population of Istanbul exceeded 500,000, making adequate supplies of food of vital importance. The entire empire was mobilized for the task of feeding Istanbul, leading historian Robert Mantran to go so far as to describing the city as a “stomach-capital.”

Ottoman sultans took care to provide for the city’s inhabitants. Food products from the provinces of Anatolia and Rumelia were of primary importance in this regard. Robert Mantran, Feridun Emecen and Arif Bilgin have produced various studies on the subject.

Sheep from the Balkans

Along with cereals, lamb cuts enjoyed a particular pride of place in Turkish dietary habits. Sheep were brought mostly from several hubs across the Balkans, including the Thrace, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania, as well as central Anatolia (namely Karaman) and the Taurus region.

Thanks to its far more accessible location, the Balkans were the main source of sheep. Beef, which was consumed far less than mutton, was sourced from the Thrace. Around 4 million sheep, 3 million lambs, and 200,000 cattle were butchered in slaughterhouses annually.

Istanbulites' typical diet, especially for the better-off, was further enriched by chicken, egg and fish. Chicken was delivered from the Eastern Thrace and the İzmit region.

Fishing in Istanbul was conducted with rods or nets cast out of small boats, or through fishgarths. The fishgarths which supplied fish to Istanbul were mostly located in Beykoz, Silistra and Kili, along the Danube, and in Selçuk on the Aegean coast. Fish caught in faraway fishgarths were kippered and later sent to Istanbul.

From wheat to vegetables

Wheat was imported from the Marmara coast of the Thrace, from Bursa, Balıkesir, İzmir and Manisa regions, and from Wallachia and Moldavia. Some of the grains came from regions along the Black Sea coast (Crimea, southern Russia, northwest Anatolia) and from Egypt. When the harvest in Rumelia was poor, Anatolian provinces like Sivas, Tokat, Amasya and even Erzurum supplied grains to pick up the slack.

Along with grains, rice was also an important food item. Pilau rice and other dishes were among the favorite side-dishes enjoyed by Istanbulites. Since rice was imported mainly from Egypt, the price was high and the ingredient was mostly limited to the upper echelons of society.

As meat was usually expensive, vegetables, fruits and dairy products made up the bulk of the diet of Istanbulites. Vegetables like zucchini, pumpkin, eggplant, sour grapes, cabbage, spinach, green onions, garlic, radish, celery, brined vine leaves, leek, beetroot, tomato, purslane, fresh okra, and dried eggplant were products that were all readily available in Istanbul.

Vegetable gardens and truck farms in the suburbs of Istanbul’s Asian and European sides served an important function as places for vegetable and fruit growing. But the suburbs could not supply the needed amounts.

Towns across the Marmara region used to feed Istanbul. Vegetables and fruits came to Istanbul by the plenty, with the surrounding village supplying artichokes, cabbage, cucumbers, turnips, spring onions, and various fruits; the Eastern Thrace supplying broad beans, pickles, and grapes; İzmit and its environs supplying melon, watermelon, spring onions, and chestnuts; Western Anatolia supplying melon, watermelon, fresh fruits, particularly figs and grapes, dried fruits, and olives; Anatolian coasts of the Black Sea supplying hazelnut, cherries, apples, and chestnuts; and Egypt supplying dried vegetables, broad beans, lentils, and green peas.

Cheese and dairy products also made up some of the most commonly consumed food items. Exquisite yogurts and cheeses were made in regions near Istanbul such as Kanlıca, Sütlüce, Kasımpaşa, Ortaköy, and Üsküdar. Besides, Kashkaval cheese was imported from Tekirdağ, Limnos, Ahyolu and Rumelia; tulum cheese from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean regions, as well as Wallachia and Rumelia; and tekerlek (round) cheese from Wallachia, the Black Sea region and the island of Euboea (Eğriboz).

Spices, honey and sugar

Many Ottoman dishes were flavored with garlic, onion, and paprika, along with other spices, and olive oil, lemon, vinegar and various sauces were also used in modest amounts. Garlic was sourced from İzmit, while lemons were shipped over from the islands of Kos and Chios, as well as Mersin. Vinegar was brought from Bursa, olive oil from Western Anatolia (especially the Edremit and Ayvalık regions), while spices arrived from Arabia and the East Indies.

The honey and sugar needed to make Istanbul’s famous sherbets were imported from beyond the reaches of the empire. Honey came via Wallachia, Moldavia and Varna to be stored in the Balkapanı Han of Istanbul's Eminönü area before being supplied to the relevant merchants. On the other hand, sugar, which had long been shipped from Egypt only, was later also imported from Portugal, France and Britain.

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