Istanbul, the capital of the sprawling Ottoman Empire, was a popular destination for nineteenth century flâneurs. The city at the extreme edge of Europe was a fitting endpoint of the Grand Tour, the customary trip across the continent undertaken by young and wealthy Englishmen in the 1800s. The Tour was considered a rite of passage among men of means with time on their hands. It was also an excuse to escape the stifling conformity of Victorian England and let loose, so to speak, under the cover of anonymity offered by a strange and foreign land. The bazaars and mosques of Istanbul represented all that seemed exotic about the Orient, and its harems and bathhouses initiated Victorian-era virgins into the pleasures of the flesh.
The advent of a railway line connecting Istanbul to Western European capitals in the early part of the 19th century introduced mass tourism to Istanbul. The city on the Golden Horn was the terminus of the fabled Orient Express, the luxury train service that began its journey at Paris's Gare de l'Est. Paris and Istanbul shared more than just a common train line, however; both were imperial capitals with far-reaching military and cultural influence at the height of their glory. Both cities were also known centers of gastronomy. Though the rise of Paris as a sophisticated European capital would have to wait until the Renaissance, Constantinople (the original name of Istanbul under the Byzantines) was already a thriving center of trade, scholarship, and Christianity in the sixth century.
Located on the Bosphorus Straits, Constantinople was where Asian and European cultures met—and often clashed. At its apex, the Byzantine Empire covered the lands of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and the Middle East. The ingredients and culinary practices from across this vast empire mixed and evolved into Byzantine cuisine. When the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the conquering Sultan Mehmet II was so impressed with what he saw, he spared many of the city's Byzantine monuments and traditions. Christianity and Judaism were tolerated, and the recipes and cooking techniques of the Byzantines—the amalgam of Greek, Jewish and Armenian families—were assimilated into Ottoman cuisine. Islam today may be associated with ascetic values and austerity, but during its heyday the Ottoman Sultanate was notoriously hedonistic.
The Ottoman sultans sought pleasure in their harems and hamams, but also in their kitchens. Chief Confectioners were appointed by the sultan to develop new sweets, while the Ottoman Turks were first to practice coffee culture. Ankara is now the capital of Republican Turkey, but Istanbul is still its undisputed center of gastronomy. And although the empire of the Byzantines and Ottomans is long gone, the fertile valleys of Anatolia and the rich coasts of the Aegean and Black Seas remain a part of modern Turkey. The country is one of a few in the world that produces all of its own food. Wheat and grain grow in the Anatolian heartland and the grasslands of Central Turkey are ideal for raising livestock for meat and dairy.
Turkey is also one of the world's largest exporters of olive oil, nuts, and citrus fruit. It's hard to imagine any ingredient that can't be grown on the soil or gathered from the seas surrounding the country. It's ironic then that despite its long culinary history and contribution to global gastronomy, little is known today about Turkish cuisine apart from kebabs and baklava. The grilled meat skewers and rich syrupy pastry are indeed common in the streets of Istanbul, but as any visitor soon realizes, there's so much more to Turkish food than these two popular delicacies.
So do as nineteenth century flaneurs once did after getting off the train station at Sirkeci in downtown Istanbul: marvel at the sites of one of the world's greatest imperial capitals while making time to enjoy the culinary gems hidden in the streets and bazaars of the city.
Photographs by David Celdran
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue No. 21 2015.