Sultans in the Ottoman Empire loved to eat. In the 15th century, Topkapi Palace boasted a kitchen staff of 100 people, a number that grew to 500 during the 16th-century reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Before 1600, the kitchen staff topped 1,000 people who were all dedicated to creating the confections, drinks, and elaborate meals eaten by the sultan. Ottoman sultans prized expensive luxuries that expanded beyond the Ottoman harems and into their kitchens as well. They stocked their pantries with ground orchid and other exotic spices, and imported ingredients from across their massive empire and from neighboring territories, including the Persian Empire and China.
Sultans were also secretive about what they ate. Imperial cooks were forbidden from writing down recipes. The sultan didn't want to share his culinary secrets with anyone else. While some popular Ottoman dishes, such as Turkish coffee and baklava, are still mainstays in Turkish cuisine, others are harder to reconstruct.
In spite of the sultans' secrecy, many foods and beverages popular with Ottoman rulers can still be found on the streets of Istanbul today, over a century after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. These foods help Turkey rank among the countries with the best food, and are mainstays in Turkish culture.
The Ottoman sultans had their own confectionery kitchen that whipped up treats for the palace. The kitchen specialized in sweets, jams, juices, and syrups. And baklava was one of the most luxurious desserts. While baklava dates back thousands of years - at least to the ancient Assyrians - the Ottomans perfected it. At Istanbul's Imperial Palace, the kitchen baked delicious baklava treats. In 1473, a kitchen notebook recorded the making of baklava.
For centuries, only the wealthy could afford it. Even today, Turks sometimes use the expression, "I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day." The time-consuming desert is made from paper-thin pastry layered with nuts and honey.
Ottoman sherbet isn't exactly the rainbow sherbet you might remember from childhood. Instead, the Ottomans drank sherbet, which they created from crushed fruit mixed with herbs and flowers. The sweet drink was popular before and during meals as a refreshing treat. One recipe called for syrup made from quince, apple, pear, peach, and apricot, which was then combined with iced spring water.
In fact, Turkish sherbet was often translated into English as "syrup," since Ottomans mixed the fruit syrup with water, ice, or snow to create delicious treats.
Turkish kebab has a long history, and legends tell of Turkish warriors eating grilled meat off their sabers. Sultans also enjoyed a good kebab, including the 19th-century Sultan Abdulaziz, who ordered takeaway kebab from a famous kebab house near his country lodge.
Today's most famous Turkish kebab is döner kebab (also called döner kebap), which was probably developed in the 19th century. The grilled meat is shaved off a vertical rotisserie. Ottomans ate the meat much like a Greek gyro or Arab shawarma, both of which are dishes derived from the Ottoman invention.
Since at least the days of Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, Ottoman sultans dined on börek. Still popular today, the flaky, savory pastry comes in triangles, crescents, or squares, and is filled with ingredients like lamb, cheese, or vegetables.
Over 500 years ago, Mehmet dined on börek filled with chicken. Other sultans may have eaten börek with many different kinds of imported ingredients. For example, during a diplomatic banquet in 1649, the Ottoman sultan served börek filled with mincemeat, dried apricots, dates, and chestnuts.