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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Ottoman Ramadan Food & Food Traditions - Baklava

Classic Ottoman Jam Jars

"This evening is number 16

As the month of Ramadan goes

Today the Janissaries got

Baklava from the Padisah"

- Ottoman Fasil recited at the palace when Baklava trays 
have been distributed to the Janissaries


The Ottoman Ramadan Pantry
Unlike today, in old times fruit, vegetable and dried goods were not available throughout the year. Therefore, all foods and ingredients that are to be consumed during Ramadan had to be prepared during the seasons when they were available. In Ottoman times, these foods that were bought or prepared ahead of time specifically for consumption during Ramadan were known as Ramazanlik. Such foods included pastirma, sucuk, kavruma and other meat products as well as dried green beans, vegetables (such as eggplants, tomatoes and red peppers) and various pickles, cheese and oils, preserves, marmalades and fruit leathers and also bulgur, noodles, rice, pasta and breads. Back then, it was important that such foods be bought or prepared in quantities sufficient to last at least a month.

According to Abdulaziz Bey, in his book Osmanli Adet, Merasim ve Tabirleri (Ottoman Customs, Ceremonies and Expressions), the preparation for Ramadan during Ottoman times was as follows: 


“The month of Ramadan was of great importance throughout the entire Islamic world and in the Ottoman Empire. Preparations and purchasing began two or three months ahead of time. The people bought household goods/needs in quantities higher than during other times, including, according to their means, preserves, sucuk or pastırma, olives, cheeses, sweets for sherbets, syrups, sufficient sugar and dried fruits for compotes, güllaç sheets, soup ingredients. In addition, they had all such copper utensils such as frying pans, pots and sinis resurfaced with tin, and aired and fluffed the cotton and wool stuffing of beds and comforters. They made clothes for themselves and their servants to wear during Ramadan, and some of the better-off even bought new room furnishings. Everyone who could would, according to their means, buy fine coffee receptacles and cups, water glasses, expensive spoons, special spoons with whistles in the handles for the enjoyment of the children, and had [new]clothes made. In the markets and bazaars, the grocers stocked colorful bundles of güllaç leaves, hung pastırma and strings of sucuk, and displayed all manner of household goods. ...

Ottoman Jam Makers

...In the sweet shops, samples of various preserves were laid out on small saucers, and were decked with sweets, ingredients for sherbets, and sherbet cups known as haması. Tobacconists chopped âlâ BoğçaYenice and Samsun tobaccos and packaged them up in all manner of fine papers. All the neighborhood coffeehouses were swept, their windows were cleaned and the Karagöz (shadow play) performers Andorta Oyun theatre (a type of traditional Turkish theater) companies rented the large coffeehouses throughout Istanbul in which to perform their arts.  ...
...[Shops stocked] spices to put into soups and incense to burn while the Holy Koran was read. Bottles, plugged with cotton, contained mustard to be eaten with the dish known as Bumbar (stuffed intestine). There were dates to break the fast at iftar and all sorts of spiced candies. And outside the glass doors [of the shops, peddlars sold] all sorts of simit, çörek and Ramazan pide (special breads for Ramadan).”

Ramadan Provisions
It was customary during Ottoman times, for those who were well-off to send Ramazanlik to their families, friends and neighbours. This custom of sending out Ramadan provisions is known as distributing Ramazanlik. Because foods are more readily available these days, the custom of Ramazanlik is not as widely practiced as it used to be. Today, instead of individuals, it is more likely that factory/business owners would distribute Ramazanlik to their employees and this is considered to be an extension of that old custom.

Ottoman Time Market Place

The First Meal of The Day - Sahur
The first meal of the day is eaten the latest possible before the break of dawn by those who intend to fast, known as Sahur in Turkish. While Sahur is not a religious requirement, it is highly recommended by the prophet as it helps in keeping the body nourished and energised during the fast. Since one will go back to sleep after sahur, the foods must be chosen with care. In addition to flavor and presentation, it is mandatory that sahur foods are healthy, full of nutrients, not too rich or salty as to not cause fatigue and thirst. 

“In Anatolia and Rumelia, the staples of the sahur meal were gözleme and börek. The women would knead the dough at night, and bring the gözleme and börek to the table freshly baked. In Istanbul, however, börek was not eaten for sahur; the sahur table contained kazandibi, çöreks, kashkaval cheese, neck meat and cold sliced tongue.
...One evening there would be pilav, the next evening a type of noodle called taygan. Everyone would eat a bowl of yogurt and a bowl of noodles or rice. Then, before washing their mouths and declaring their intention to fast, they would have a bowl of compote and say “yarrabi sana şükürler olsun” (Oh, my Lord, thanks be to you) and declare the intent to fast that day. After declaring their intent, they would read the Koran until the morning call to prayer, perform namaz, and then go back to bed, sleeping till noon.”
- Writer Münevver Alp, whose writings provide much information about Old Istanbul

While those were the traditional Suhour options in households during Ottoman times, nowadays most people would eat leftover Iftar food, or would prepare a variety of small dishes including cheeses, olives, jams... and have a quick meal before heading to bed.

In Ottoman times as in more modern Turkey, the Iftar meal is very varied, yet consists of small quantities of these varieties. There is not any one dish that is the focus of the meal, as people would pick, bits and pieces from various plates. As before them, and today, the Ottomans too broke fast with dates, while at times with olives too. They then had a glass of sherbet and went to pray Al Maghrib. After the prayer, they would have a small variety of foods from which they would eat bits and pieces. Then once Taraweeh prayers were over, a bigger meal was served including desserts.

Baklava Alayi (Baklava Parade)
On the 15th of every Ramadan, it was customary in the Ottoman palaces for the Sultan to present Baklava trays to be distributed to the Janissaries in a tradition called the Baklava Alayi. It is said that accepting these trays - especially by the higher ranking Janissaries - indicated satisfaction with their pay and conditions, while returning the tray was to communicate dissatisfaction. The Harem would also distribute Baklava trays to their Janaissaries and would go the extent of distributing them to the populace in special events and celebrations.

In modern days, Baklava is still considered - by many - the sweet of choice for celebrations and gifting. Many would serve Baklava to everyday guests and on special occasions such as Ramadan, Eid and other occasions. Furthermore, many would give Baklava as a gift when visiting guests. This tradition still lives on and had been started back in the Ottoman days.

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Turkish Baklava, top part
Turkish Baklava
Serves 10

There are many varieties of Baklava, almost every Middle Eastern country has its own Baklava recipe. This is the basic Turkish recipe, to which you can add and even get creative. 

Confectioners usually boast the number of sheets used in making Baklava (the more being better), so it is common to hear that this Baklava was made out of 70 sheets even going up to 90 sheets as base before filling and so on. I have gone for 1 packet of filo sheets here, but feel free to become a confectioner :)

You Need
1 packet square filo pastry sheets, or make your own filo (recipe here)
250 g butter, melted
1.5 cups walnuts (or pistachio), roughly chopped
1/4 cup soft brown sugar
1 recipe sugar syrup (recipe on this link)


Preheat your oven to  340F.

Line a shallow baking dish with baking paper. Place 2 filo sheets on the lined sheet and generously brush them with melted butter. Top with another layer of filo and brush it with butter and continue to spread and brush until you have used half the packet of filo. Sprinkle the top layer of the brushed pastry with the chopped walnuts and sprinkle the soft brown sugar on top. Continue to layer and brush the remaining pastry.

Using a sharp knife cut through the layers in the shape and size that you desire. Generously brush the top with butter once more and bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.

In the meantime, make the sugar syrup. While the syrup is still warm, pour it slowly over the cooled Baklava, allowing it to be absorbed.

Once cooled, transfer the Baklava pieces into a serving dish and sprinkle the tops lightly with crushed pistachios. Serve at room temperature.



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Food For Thought
In Search of Lost Art
Muslim Sufi Orders have always used twirling, music and poetry both to express their love of and to get closer to Allah. The twirling, repetitive recitations (of religious phrases such as the names of Allah, expressing gratitude...) and music are so captivating that they have become a form of art taught and practiced by many artists, including non-Muslims. The real Sufi Dervishes are taught by their spiritual mentors, and their practice is usually made to get closer to the Divine rather than a performance. Yet they have always captivated an audiance. The Ottoman Sultans too would sit for a Sima, or a twirling performance by Dervishes.

While Sufi dancers were much more popular in the past, a tradition held in many cities, especially in Countries like Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Istanbul... they have been diminishing in the past decade, and not as commonly found. However, the tradition, the art and the soul of Sufism are all coming back to life. So much so, that festivals, such as the Fes Festival of World Spiritual Music, as well as the Sufi festival held in Turkey in April, and a few performances held in Abu Dhabi recently.... among others... are all reminders of this wonderful form of art. Cities like Beirut had brought Sufi dancers back to the Ramadan scene of activities last year, and Sufi dance performances continue to exist in Jordan's Sarcasian community.

Beautiful, captivating and soothing for the soul... 
Watch this video you will love it. In their performance of the Sima Dervishes perform a twirling as they believe it helps them transcend worldly attachments into the realm of the Divine. Sima is now performed in many areas of the world as a form of art, and to some even as a form of meditation! 


Hope you enjoyed getting to know the Foods and food traditions of Ramadan during Ottoman Times.
let me hear your thoughts, and let us know if your country has such foods that have become the food of choice for gifting and special occasions? 

Also let me know if you have ever watched a live Sufi performance? Did you know there are many different types of music, twirling and styles? which is your favourite? Leave a comment and help me keep the conversation alive.

Come back tomorrow for 
Ramadan in Topkapi (Ottoman Palace)  :)


The world is beautiful, all its people are beautiful, all cultures equally important, and all the same in the end - all out there for us to explore...
Ramadan Kareem

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