An Ottoman Fairy Tale

I have found myself recently with a few hours on my hands while waiting for a plane at the Istanbul airport. Unlike most airports in the world, which all look alike and sell the same machine-made overpriced junk -- the Ataturk makes an effort to include traditional Turkish handicrafts and foods, which makes a layover interesting. As I wondered around, sampling foods and inspecting tiles and embroidery, I suddenly I remembered a story. As far as I know, this story is a work of fiction and all resemblance to real people, places, or events is entirely accidental. Well, then:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Sometime in the early spring of the year 17... the Sultan and his favorite wife were enjoying a bit of lokum in the Flower Room1:

when the grand vizier approached softly, respectfully bent in half, bearing in his hands a meticulously executed report2:

The gist of the report was this: in a remote corner of the world known as aṣ-Ṣūmāl a new kind of dish was discovered; the spies who had eaten it have reported experiencing in the wake of its consumption the feelings of light-headed delight, blissful contentedness and delicious sluggishness.

Even the briefest perusal of the hypothesized recipe made it amply clear why this should be so:

Pilaff With Herbs and Gum Mastic


500 gr Basmati rice
150 gr butter
1/4 tsp salt
750 gr meat stock
1/4 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1/4 bunch dill, finely chopped
1/4 bunch fresh mint, finely chopped
4 green onions
1/4 bunch radicchio
1/2 tsp ground ginger
4 cardamom pods, crushed
2 drops of gum masti

Wash and drain the rice. Melt the butter in a skillet, add the rice and saute for 3-4 minutes. Add the finely chopped herbs and green onion and mix well for 4 minutes. Add the salt, ginger, gum mastic and cardamom. Then add the meat stock and mix again. Lower the heat and let steep over low heat for 5-6 minutes. Finally, stir with a spoon. Serve piping hot.

Although the power of the report had been intentionally muted by the scribes, who, to protect the innocent, excluded graphic representations of the appearance of the dish when it is served in a sweet-dough casing with pine-seeds:

yet, the Sultan's favorite wife unwittingly (and near-imperceptibly) moved her ample lips somewhat while listening to the report all the same3:

(And who could blame her? I can see your lips are moving, too).

"Excellent!" exclaimed the Sultan and clapped his hands in delight. "That resolves the issue!"

(The Sultan and the grand vizier had spent the whole winter fruitlessly trying to decide what target to choose for the traditional spring campaign: whether to invade Azerbaijan again, or to besiege Vienna, which has not been besieged now for a few years. Neither objective excited them: it was just more of the same tiresome, dull, dreadful same-old-same-old; Azerbaijan-Vienna, Vienna-Azerbaijan. And the food was dreadful).

But now, unexpectedly, a new, fresh, obvious target has suggested itself!

"Dispatch the Janissaries immediately!" exclaimed the Sultan.

(The name Yanissari literally means "though guys in slippers":)

The following morning the sounds of the Janissary orchestra could be heard wafting in from the outer courtyard as the troop assembled and departed for the campaign (press to play):

Later that summer aṣ-Ṣūmāl was added to the Grand Empire as its sixty seventh province (making for a kind of ornamental tail); and the dish entered the Ottoman dietary mainstream4 for centuries to come.


Footnotes and Disclaimers:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم : the Basmalla: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate". (What did you think it was?)

The flower room does exist in the Harem of the Topkapi. The flowers look to me a lot like something from Jahangir's book of flower designs; they may have come to Istanbul by way of a Mughal carpet, perhaps like the one in the Gulbenkian.

2 I'm lying, of course. This work is a Hilya, which is a genre of calligraphic work embodying the Prophet’s moral, behavioral, and spiritual qualities as well as aspects of his physical appearance. I allow myself this act of borderline disrespect in this instance because the work is also an Icazet, that is, a diploma awarded by the teacher to a student of calligraphy after examination of a piece of calligraphy written by the student in the presence of a his/her teacher or teachers. This example is signed by several teachers of the calligrapher Mehmet Ferit (18th century). (Special thanks to Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy).

3 Lying again! The dish is Safavid and represents a male prince. (Special thanks to the British museum).

4 More lies. Somalia was never part of the Ottoman empire and elaborate pilafs were part of Turkish diet long before the conquest of Istanbul.


(God, what a fun way to waste a perfectly good morning this has been!)


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