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Fruit poached to perfection, the fragrant ‘hoşaf’, or compote, is a simple, soothing finale to any meal – be it banquet or family dinner. Berrin Torolsan traces its origins to the sultan’s kitchens and serves up some irresistible recipes and photographs
On the evening of May 20, 1836, Sultan Mahmud II hosted a banquet in the famous meadow of the Sweet Waters of Asia, by the Bosphorus, to mark the circumcision of two of his sons, the half-brothers and crown princes Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz, each of whom would, in his turn, ascend the throne. Every bit the reformer and Westerniser, the Sultan who had abolished the Janissaries nonetheless felt that a feast should be served in the traditional manner. So the diplomatic corps, in their stiff uniforms, were probably seated somewhat uncomfortably round huge trays set on low tables.
Among the guests that night was a young captain, Helmuth von Moltke, who had been granted leave from the Prussian army to explore the Ottoman Empire, and who would later be asked by the Sultan to help to train his new army. In a letter home he described the great occasion.
Delicacy followed delicacy, wrote the future field marshal. Unaware that they should be pacing themselves and just tasting each course, the European guests helped themselves to copious quantities from the dishes set before them, until one of them had to “insist on Pilaw”, knowing that only this would signal the end of the meal. When the rice dish arrived, it was quickly followed by a thirst-quenching “bowl of Wuschaff, an infusion of fruit, placed in the centre, which we ate with spoons and emptied”.
The sequence of courses described by Moltke confirmed an earlier account by Mouradgea d’Ohsson. A polyglot Ottoman subject born in Pera in 1740, Mouradgea was known as Muratcan Tosunyan until he Frenchified his name. His insider’s view of the Ottoman state, Tableau général de l’Empire othoman, is an incomparable source of information on Ottoman etiquette (see “Behind Palace Doors”, page 80).
No sooner was pilav placed before guests at the end of a meal, Mouradgea wrote, than “Khosch’ab” – Moltke’s Wuschaff – was served, to be eaten with the rice. (The word, from the Persian meaning “delightful water”, became “hoşaf” in everyday Turkish.) The dish consisted of “all kinds of fruit, raisins, pears, apples, apricots, cherries, even pistachios poached in sugar and water”. Well-to-do households might add “a sprinkling of rosewater or orange-blossom water, or a touch of musk”. In summer it was “chilled with cubes of ice”.
Hoşaf is the Western world’s compote, and is still enjoyed as a way to end a meal on a hoş (delightful) sweet note. If it no longer appears on menus, that is because it is now known by the European-sounding word komposto…
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