Ingredient Measurements in Ottoman Cuisine

Turkish Cuisine involves a vast geographical area. This area covers from middle Asia to Anatolia as well as the lands once were within the  Ottoman Empire’s borders. Modern Turkish Cuisine is the heritage of this wide culinary history which was influenced by many traditional cuisines; primarily by Roman and Byzantine Cuisines and followed by Balkan and Arab Cuisines.

In our days where we formulize or “recipetize” everything, the “Traditional” part of Turkish Cuisine seems like uncharted waters. In these old recipes the ingredients, the order they need to be added and the type of cooking are given. Yet, the measurements and exact quantities are almost never given. Therefore, you get the feeling that in your first try you will surely fail.

Pinch of, bunch of, a little, some, tiny bit, one bite, with the tip of the fork, on the edge of a knife, almost none, abundantly, without mercy, with the judgment of the hand or eye, small teaspoon, tea glass, water glass, are the “measurements” which are usually used in the recipes.

If you look at some of the modernized versions of these old Ottoman recipes on the TV or printed media, type and quantity of the ingredients are decided upon. Yet, if you are getting the recipe in an informal way, or from an unprofessional individual, you will surely hear one of the descriptions of quantity at least once. This kind of recipetization is a relic of the old Ottoman kitchen traditions.

There is an Arabic book about food and recipes, named Kitabü’t-tabih, by Muhammed ibn Muhammed el Katib el-Bagdadi, published in 1266. While Mahmud Sirvani translated this book into Ottoman Turkish in the 15th century, he added 77 recipes to the book. Let’s take a look at one of the recipes from this book, which is considered by researchers as an original Ottoman recipe. It is one of the added recipes, Keskul Courgette:

Yaş kabağın kabın ve çekirdeğin giderün doğrayalar ve biraz semiz eti dahi kalye doğrayalar ve biraz ma’danoz ve biraz soğan dahi doğrayalar ve biraz mukaşşer nohud ve bir hereni içinde bir kat et ve bir kat kabak ve bir kat baki eshabı temam olunca kat kat tertib üzerine döşeyeler ve biraz fülfül ve bir mikdar tuz dahi koyalar ve biraz darçin ve zencebil ve karanfil ekeler ve biraz cezer sucuğunun koyalar biraz bile kaynaya, kotaracak, etin üzerine düzeler, acaib ola

The underlined words are the quantities, which are “some” and “a little”. As you can see there are no numbers, or any mention of a uniform unit to define them.

The reasons behind this description choice is, in fact, logical: palate choices and quality of ingredient. Both affect the quantities of ingredients immensely. The empire spanned a large land over three continents, and as the recipes are translated and transported, the quantities are changed according to regional palate, sharpness of taste or economical reasons.

The skill in Ottoman kitchen called, “the hand”, takes its root from these indistinct recipe descriptions, where the chef needs to understand the recipe’s core and mold it according to his locale and use his hand as a measuring device.