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Berrin Torolsan brings a taste of the Steppes into the urban kitchen with ten surefire, no-fuss recipes
When the French chef of the Reform Club, Monsieur Alexis Soyer, arrived in Istanbul from London in 1855, he was possibly the most celebrated chef on earth. Yet his mission and his methods could not have been more basic. He took it upon himself to reform catering in the British army. First he must organise the kitchens of the hospitals in Scutari and the food they fed to wounded soldiers, then improve the rations of the army on campaign in the Crimea.
M Soyer was a diplomat par excellence and a culinary genius. He also understood the importance of first principles. The day after being introduced to Florence Nightingale (by Lady Redcliffe, wife of the British ambassador) in the Selimiye Kışlas›, known to the British as Barrack Hospital, he transformed the unappetising meals the hospital offered its patients into palatable sustenance – using exactly the same ingredients. In his book, Culinary Campaign, published after the Crimean War, he tells us in detail how he did it:
“Having put the proper quantities of water into each copper, with meat, barley, vegetables and salt and pepper, we lighted the fires; and after allowing the ingredients to simmer for two hours and a half, an excellent soup was made; I only added a little sugar and flour to finish it.” He adds, “The receipt of this soup, so highly approved by medical men, will be found in my Hospital Diets, with a scale of proportions from ten to a hundred.” M Soyer’s soups, beef teas (consommés) and chicken broths for the sick, wounded and convalescent in hospital and his energy-giving recipes for the army in the field were a great success. His own invention of a portable field stove on which to cook for regiments was still in use by the British army in the Gulf War; he even designed a teapot, the “Scutari teapot”, for preparing tea in huge quantities. All drew the admiration of his adopted country, as well as the approval of Sultan Abdülmecid. At the end of the war, he was invited to Dolmabahçe Palace to receive the imperial compliment in person.
Soups today, mainly served as a first course, are becoming ever lighter and more refined. They can be sipped without remotely satisfying the appetite. But until the last century they were robust, substantial, filling meals. Soups nourished armies and individuals, rich and poor, young and old, in war and peace.
Just as soup – and the related words supper, and the French soupe and souper – all came to denote a meal, sülen, the archaic Turkic word for soup, survives from the nomadic life of the Steppes in modern Turkish as şölen, the common word for celebratory feast.
Cooking in the Ottoman Empire assumed literally canonical significance. Like some Sufi orders, Janissary regiments used culinary terms to emphasise the hierarchical nature of their organisation. The corps itself was the hearth – ocak. Senior colonels had the title of “soup chef” – çorbacı: they were very powerful figures. (In Bulgaria the word czorbaci is still used to refer to the elite.) The huge soup cauldron that belonged to each Janissary regiment was the emblem of its brotherhood. When an army mutinied, it was the custom to overturn the huge copper cauldrons, symbolically renouncing obedience by refusing the ration offered by the sovereign.
But what went into those cauldrons when rebellion was not on the menu? The imperial accounts from the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror (1451–81) record that 2.5 kile (500kg) of the best rice and 1.5 kile (300 kg) of the best wheat were supplied daily. A soup made from nearly a ton of grain must have filled the cauldrons. Later, in the time of Mehmed’s son, Beyaz›d II (1481–1512), soup-kitchen accounts refer to a “wheat soup” distributed to the poor before sunset each day.
When Hans Dernschwam, factor of the banker Prince Anton Fugger, travelled to Turkey from Vienna in 1553–55, he reported in his haughty but highly informative diary, Eine Reise nach Konstantinopel und Kleinasien, that “every day the Turks eat czorba – soup, which is cooked from wheat, barley, lentils, beans, faseoli and the like, with a piece of mutton.” “Turks’ food is only czorba,” he moans.
He lists some of the common man’s soups: “Rice soup, cooked in mutton broth. Lemon juice or vinegar is poured [over] and sometimes a little pepper. It is a thick soup… Wheat soup cooked in mutton broth, and another rice soup cooked in chicken stock with parsley.” It would seem the Turks’ love of soup and their methods of soup-making have changed little since then. In one province alone – Kastamonu in central Anatolia – there are no fewer than eighty-one different kinds of soup. Besides broths, porridges and congees, soups of a thinner consistency must also have been cooked since early times, for in Turkish soups are “drunk”, not “eaten”.
Making Stock: In Istanbul, when you ask your butcher if he has bones for a soup, he will happily produce a large veal shinbone from the fridge. He cracks it into two chunks that will fit the soup pan and usually doesn’t charge for it. Since few of us nowadays have time to cook, let alone make soups with proper stock, bones are often discarded. But in the countryside nothing is wasted. A long time ago a village lady told me that when an animal was slaughtered, bones with a little flesh left on them were dried overnight in the dying embers of a wood-burning oven. When they were needed, they were soaked then simmered to make a rich broth. The basis of many delicious soups is a good stock. If lemon juice or vinegar is added to veal or chicken bones, the bones will impart their valuable calcium as well as their flavour to the stock, and the lemon or vinegar will give it a tang and cut the richness. Cooked conventionally, a stock will take up to two hours, but a pressure cooker will cut the time to 20 minutes. The process is worth it. Stocks will keep in the fridge for a week, and for several weeks in the freezer. If you are freezing the stock, divide it first into containers of the size you are likely to need for one meal.
Recipes in this article are given for Umaç Çorbası (Mince and Mint Soup); Şehriye Çorbası (Chicken Stock with Vermicelli); Düğün Çorbası (Wedding Soup); Yarma Çorbası (Wheat Grain Soup); Balik Çorbası (Tangy Fish Soup); Kırmızı Mercimek Çorbası (Red Lentil Soup); Yayla Çorbası (Soup of the Mountain Pastures); Kuşkonmasz Çorbası (Cream of Asparagus); Sebze Çorbası (Vegetable Soup); Domates Çorbası (Tomato Soup); and Tarhana
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London’s Islamic Sales Week, Washington’s textile exhibitions, New York’s Mughal jewellery, Ara Güler’s Turkey in black and white and the Biennial in Istanbul
The London Academy of Ottoman Court Music, with Emre Araci
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