The Empire of Food: The Ottoman influences still felt across Middle Eastern cuisine

Course Specific
May 4
3 mins

From the Viennese Alps in the North, to the deserts of Yemen in the South, the Ottoman Empire was one of the major global powers for over 600 years.

Much like the other empires of history, the Ottoman’s shaped the people and cultures under their control, leaving cultural signifiers in every walk of life -  from language, to architecture and religion.

But one such signifier that often goes overlooked in the history books is food.

Starting out as a small province near what is now modern Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire grew across the Middle East, Europe and Africa between the years of 1301 and 1917. Yet unlike many other Empires of the time, they tolerated religious and cultural diversity. 

The size of the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its size

Predominantly an agrarian Muslim society, the early Ottomans moved away from their nomadic cattle rearing ways towards a sophisticated system of farms, producing rice, wheat, berries, apples and grapes.

Due to the prohibition of alcohol in Islam, many of the crops that would have made their way into a fermentation tank elsewhere in Europe were used simply for cuisine. Grape leaves, raisins, and breads of every shape were hugely popular across the empire.

Still a large meat eating society, Ottoman subjects tended to cook mutton and lamb due to the religious restrictions around pork, and their reliance on cattle for dairy products and physical labour.

But the most interesting aspect of Ottoman cuisine is the way food was circulated from the very extremities of the Empire, back to the centre of power and culture, then away again. This to and fro movement that food took during the Ottoman Empire meant that similar dishes were tweaked and altered by local chefs, then readopted by their neighbours.

Take koftes for instance. This dish is essentially a spiced meatball traditionally char-grilled over coals. It was particularly popular in the Ottoman court of the 15th and 16th centuries, causing it to spread out across the whole Empire.

Yet as each culture took the dish, they used local ingredients, different spice blends and experimented with different meats. One such region being the Levant.

Street vendors of Ottoman Palestine took this creation that was named after the Urdu word for 'pounded meat' and truly made it their own, passing down recipes through the generations. Turkic cuisine was actually one of the first imports that took root in the Levant, long before the waves of immigration that came with the 19th and 20th centuries.

A modern Levantine take on the Kofte using fish instead of lamb or beef

Kofte became Kufta, then Kofta.

Just as Baklava became Baklawa, then Baqlaba.

The power of the Ottoman Empire had begun to wane by the mid 17th century, eventually dissolving with the First World War and the creation of the Turkish republic, yet while historians debate over the successes and failures of the Empire, their impact was undeniably profound.

Across the Mediterranean and Middle East, the lines between cuisines were blurred with the passage of people around the old Ottoman Empire. 

This is not to say ‘Middle Eastern Cuisine’ should be used as a catch-all for such a diverse and varied range of food cultures. But the very fact that someone who lives in the Balkans can lay claim to the same dish as someone living in Egypt is a testament to the distance that foods travelled in a political body as multicultural as the Ottoman Empire.

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