By the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Yashim walked slowly across the Hippodrome, towards the obelisk that the emperor Constantine had brought from Egypt 1500 years ago. He wondered what they meant, those perfect birds, those unwinking eyes, the hands and feet incised with unearthly precision on the gleaming stone.

He stopped for a moment in the pencil of the obelisk’s shade, and touched its base. Trajan’s column stood fifty yards beyond, a slender bole of rugged stone, weathered and clamped with great bronze staples, its base carved with a Roman emperor’s Balkan triumphs, helmeted legionaries crammed together with their short swords drawn; the stamp of horses, the abasement of chieftains and kings, the flinging of bridges across rivers, and the lament of women. The scenes were hard to decipher, too; the stone had been softer.

Beneath it, Arab traders had pitched a wide green tent on poles. A string of mules went by, and as Yashim lowered his gaze to watch them pass his eye was caught by the twining stalk of the Serpent Column, hollow and broken like a reed: a twist of ancient verdigris no bigger than a withered palm-tree, set in a triumphal axis between the obelisk and the column.

It had been made over two thousand years before, a miracle of craftsmanship to celebrate the miracle of Greek victory over the Persians at Plataia, with three fearsome snake’s heads supporting a great bronze cauldron. It had stood for centuries at the oracle of Delphi, until Constantine seized it and dragged it here to beautify his new capital. The centuries since had been unkind to it. The cauldron was long gone; the heads, more recently, had disappeared.

Yashim had known the Serpent Column for years before he first saw the bronze heads in Palewski’s wardrobe. He had imagined them to look like real snakes, with broad jaws and small, reptilian eyes, so he had been shocked by the monsters whose cruel masks he had explored by candlelight that evening. They were creatures of myth and nightmare, fanged, blank-eyed, seeking to terrorise and devour their prey. Malevolence seeped from them like blood.

Yashim leaned over the railing, to peer down into the pit from which the Serpent Column sprang. The other columns stood on level ground. Was it because the snakes emerged from somewhere deeper, some dark, submerged region in the mind? He shuddered, with an instinctive horror of everything cultish and pagan. From above, the coiling snakes looked like a drill, a screw digging deeper and deeper into the fabric of the city, penetrating its layers one by one.

If you turned it so that the coils bit deeper into the ground, if you traced the sinuous curves of the serpents’ bodies from the tail up, you would bring the fanged monsters closer. And eventually you would find yourself staring into those pitiless hollow eyes and the gaping mouth, into the dark side of myths and dreams: terrorised, and then devoured.

Yashim glanced back at the Egyptian obelisk. It seemed cold and reserved, careless of its fate. The Roman column was nothing but a platitude: empires decay.

But between them, the green-black coils of the brazen serpents referred to a dark enigma, like a blemish in the human soul.

From The Snake Stone

 

Jeremy Seal has made a useful assessment of the current travel situation here.

Mindfulness, Ottoman style?

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The Ottomans, being meritocrats who rewarded talent over accidents of birth, were naturally keen on self-improvement. If you entered palace service, you were educated formally at first, and then expected to carry on improving your skills and learning new ones. By the end, if you were good, you were in a position to handle the demands of high office. You might even make it to Grand Vizier.

I shall never make vizier, but I approve of the Ottoman attitude to self-improvement. We all try to get better at what we do, and perhaps we should try to get better at things we don’t do, too, or didn’t until now. This year I set aside my books and learned how to restore an ancient house, how to write a screenplay using Final Draft and how to take photographs, principally of food. As many of you will know from your own experience, the effort proved enjoyable, and worthwhile.

I needed beautiful pictures to illustrate Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book, for which many of you have already kindly tested recipes. I do have beautiful pictures of Ottoman Istanbul, with old maps, illustrations and engravings, to accompany the text and help evoke the atmosphere of Yashim’s Istanbul. I have lovely photographs of the modern city, its markets, ferries, domes and shops, to forge the link between Yashim’s time and our own. That leaves only the dishes themselves to be portrayed, hinting at their excellence.

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Advised by a website called thewoksoflife I bought a new sort of lens, and took estimable advice and instruction available on the internet. Bearded professionals revealed some of the secrets of their craft on YouTube, camera buffs on chatrooms discussed the virtues of RAW and jpeg, and bloggers, in Manhattan lofts as in Cornish villages, showed off their cooking and photographic skills. Absorbing all this, I realised it came down to: the right lens, and the right sort of light. The right lens makes the background blur, which we photographers call bokeh, and the right light is daylight.

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After that, all you need is delicious food, charming surfaces, acceptable crockery, table cloths, clean spoons, salt cellars and small bowls, a scattering of fresh parsley from your garden and a tripod, for which sometimes a box will serve. You also need a reflector, to chase away shadows. I was told I needed tweezers, too, for arranging salad leaves, but I skipped that. I relied on opposable thumbs.

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Above all you need to get your food ready while it is still light, and you need to eat something yourself before you set it all out, otherwise you get hasty. And greedy.

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Patience is absolute. Remember Mustafa the Soup Master in The Janissary Tree?

“As for himself, he thought, patience was his second skin. How could he have lived his life, and not acquired patience in positively redemptive quantities?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book – latest!

Earlier this year, many of you generously volunteered to test a recipe for Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book. All over the world, from Albania to Alabama, readers tried out some of Yashim’s favourite Ottoman dishes, and came back with really helpful – and mostly enthusiastic – comments.

I had intended to publish the cook book myself, and I boldly declared that it would be out this Summer, in time for Yashim’s last outing in The Baklava Club, the fifth of his Istanbul adventures.

It’s not. The Baklava Club is out – here in the US

The gorgeous US edition

The gorgeous US edition

And here in the UK and elsewhere…

The UK/Commonwealth edition

The UK/Commonwealth edition

…but Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book is still on the stocks, waiting for suitably beautiful illustrations. Full colour printing is nowadays so cheap, and accessible, that it would be a shame to allow this opportunity for gorgeously illustrating Yashim’s world to slip by. So I’m using food photos, of course, but also some street shots, and wonderful old engravings and illustrations, to make the book doubly delicious.

Sweet Waters of Asia

Sweet Waters of Asia

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Thank you for your patience: I’ll let you know as soon as the proofs are done, and the book is ready for publication.

In the meantime, do follow @jsn_goodwin on Twitter, and Jason Goodwin, author, on Facebook, for more recipes, food and travel ideas, and Ottoman paraphernalia…

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Finally, for those of you on Kindle, The Janissary Tree is on special offer right now, at 99p/$1.49. Please let your friends know,  if you think they might enjoy the series: it’s an easy way in.

The Janissary Tree – starter pack?

A few weeks ago I sat next to a banker at dinner. Every day he downloads a new book on Kindle at 99p, or $1.49. Sounds tawdry? Yet some of the books offered at that price are classics. Over the past few months he had been offered some of the great sci-fi novels of the past at an absurdly cheap one-day-only price.

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Inevitably he sold me on the idea of making at least one of my books – docketed as historical fiction, or historical thrillers – available in the same way. The Baklava Club, the fifth – and final – Yashim story, is out in in the US and will come out in early July in the UK. What better way, he said, to encourage people into the series than to offer them The Janissary Tree, the first Yashim story, as an amuse bouche…?

Jean Leon Gerome's finest work - Arnaut and his dog.

Jean Leon Gerome’s finest work – Arnaut and his dog.

So that’s exactly what we have done. FSG in the States and Faber in London have knocked SPOTS off the price of the Kindle edition for what the retailers call a limited time only.

Why not?

If you are in the US, it’s here at $1.49

And for UK readers, it is here at 99p

 

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book – a big thank you

Yashim put out the call, and you came from Wisconsin and Istanbul, from Pakistan and California, from Europe, Asia and the Americas, generously offering to roadtest Yashim’s favourite Ottoman recipes for his Istanbul Cook Book. Soups and stews and dolma and sarma, salads and puddings and meze and fish: they have all been sampled, in kitchens from Ankara to Aberdeen. Many of you already have sent in your comments to yashimcooks@gmail.com – most of them, I’m glad to say, enthusiastic.

Bean salad

A well-known crime author loved the lamb and loved the beans, and will definitely do them both again.

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A kindly tester took her Albanian dish to a Greek film night and adroitly avoided sparking an international incident.

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A five-year old ate everything on his plate, all cooked by his grandfather!

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In America a translator set aside his work to deal with the tiny fish lady, and prepared fresh tuna. He came back for more.

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In Poland, two women cooked three dishes together – and took the skins off a pot of beans, for Yashim’s salad.

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People tracked down urfa biber (aka isot biber) from ethnic groceries – and even on the internet.

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The listings magazine Time Out Istanbul did a recipe – and asked to review the book when it comes out on July 9th.

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Somewhere in America, a tester went to the store for eggplant and only found leeks, so I offered her a recipe with leeks. When she got back to the shop she found the leeks sold out and eggplant back in stock. She made the dish (and a sensible remark about quantities) and loved it.

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A surprising number of cooks sprang a new dish on friends – and were glad that it turned out so well.

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Me too.

 

I’ve had really useful feedback, too, on quantities, and spicing, and oven temperatures and timing, all of which have gone into the book. If you don’t use metric and centigrade, I’ll be adding a dead simple conversion chart.

 

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has got involved, and hope that you had fun, and to thank your friends and families. I love these photos! Some of you are still engaged on Yashim’s behalf, so thank you: I am really looking forward to your thoughts and reactions, too.

 

Yashim’s fantastic chefs!

A few days ago I sent out a call for people who might enjoy testing the recipes for Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book. Are the instructions clear? Is the result scrumptious? Are you transported by a touch of heat and cumin seed to the shores of the Bosphorus?

A page from Yashim's Istanbul Cook Book
A page from Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book

The response has been fabulous – I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who got in touch at yashimcooks@gmail.com. People are road-testing these Ottoman dishes all over the world, from Pakistan to Wisconsin, Estonia to Washington DC (hello to the Culinary Historians of Washington: CHoW!), which makes it a lovely peaceful international effort. To all those who have been in touch, a big thank you for taking part.

I’ve asked Jillian’s permission to include this great photo of a soup – she was the first to send it in. Great saucepan (and I like the book getting a light grilling, too)!

Widow Matalya's Chicken Soup - with a pleasantly battered copy of Yashim's fourth adventure!
Widow Matalya’s Chicken Soup – with a pleasantly battered copy of Yashim’s fourth adventure!

As far as I know, there are no representatives of the southern hemisphere involved yet – but I have a number of recipes yet to check over, so if there are any Aussies out there, give us a shout! And do pass the email yashimcooks@gmail.com around to your friends if they fancy getting a recipe to try: I’m not planning to close the hatch until Wednesday evening, February 4th.

Peasant bread - made with a traditional chickpea starter

Peasant bread – made with a traditional chickpea starter

You might like to know this, taken from the introduction to Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book:

Most of the ingredients need no further introduction but there are a few spices which may be worth tracking down online or at a likely grocery shop.

I use two kinds of chilli pepper. Pul biber is hot chilli, in flakes or powder – like paprika or cayenne, the more you add the hotter the dish. Isot, or Urfa, biber, is a more subtle creature, darker in colour, made from Urfa red peppers that darken as they grow to deep purple. They are dried in the sun by day and wrapped up at night, the better to concentrate their flavour, which is slightly smoky, slightly sweet, and deliciously warm.

In the Spice Market and elsewhere you want to buy pepper in dry rustling flakes – vendors sometimes add salt and oil to make the mix richer and heavier. Nothing to worry about, just good to know. And powder will contain the seeds, while flakes are all flesh.

Sumac is now thoroughly available, made from a berry with a curiously good lemony and slightly sour taste.

A word on measures and quantities. Most of these recipes specify precise quantities, but we would do well to bear in mind the advice offered to a French chef sent into the kitchens by the Empress Eugenie, the consort of Napoleon III, when the imperial couple made a state visit to Istanbul in 1873. The quote is from my  Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.

 ‘The French emperor Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, spent a week in Istanbul as the Sultan’s guests in 1862. The Empress was so taken with a concoction of aubergine puree and lamb that she asked for permission to send her own chef to the kitchens to study the recipe. The request was graciously granted by their host, and the chef duly set off with his scales and notebook. The Sultan’s cook slung him out, roaring, ‘An imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes, and his nose!’

Afiyet olsun!

 

 

 

YASHIM’S ISTANBUL COOK BOOK – a call for volunteers!

As you probably already know, Yashim the Investigator – the hero of my series of five mystery novels – is something of a cook. In an idle hour in his apartment in Balat, Istanbul, he will chop and simmer and stir and sprinkle, and rustle up some delicious meze, perhaps, or a grand main dish, all the while thinking about the case he’s on. It’s how he relaxes. It’s how he thinks. Sometimes it gives him a clue…

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The books are full of recipes, and I hope they evoke the atmosphere of 19th century Istanbul – the way it looked, how it smelled, and what it all tasted like. For ages, people have been suggesting that I, the humble author, gather all Yashim’s recipes, and some more, together in one place – and I am pleased to say I’ve done it. Including baklava, of course.

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book is on its way.

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It has dozens of authentic recipes for sauces and fish, for grills and breads, for vegetables and kebabs (and pickles, like those being sold by the guys above): Istanbul the year round! And we’ve dropped in passages from the novels, too, to go with them, and lots of fabulous illustrations.

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The book has been designed by Clive Crook, the Art Director of Cornucopia Magazine, so it’s gorgeous as well as delicious.It’s being published in July.

Right now I’m looking for volunteers to road-test a recipe.Send me your email address (to the email address below), and I’ll send you a recipe from the book.

I’ve cooked them all, again and again, but I badly want to know what your experience of following the recipe was like. Did it work? Were the quantities right for you? Were the instructions clear, or did they leave you furiously backpedalling while you ground the forgotten spices and the onions burned?!

A quick ‘It worked’ is all I need (though please don’t stint if you’d rather say more), and a pointer to what, if anything, seemed wrong. I’m hoping there’ll be no complaints but I’d rather discover that now than go to press with anything that isn’t 100% perfect.

By all means tell a friend, if you think they’d like to join in. Ask them to drop me a line here, and I’ll send them a recipe to try. Who knows – you could end up having an Ottoman feast!

Get in touch at yashimcooks@gmail.com

Nuovo anno, nuovo Yashim

The Yashim stories have fabulous fans in Italy, where they are published by Einaudi: I think it’s down to striking covers and the excellent translations by Cristiana Mennella, while my dear Italian friend Anna insists that it because the word giannizzeri, as in L’Albero dei Giannizzeri, sounds mysteriously sexy!

For centuries, of course, the states of Italy and the Ottoman Empire were very closely involved with one another, through trade and war. In The Baklava Club – published as I Cospiratori del Baklava this month – the relationship takes on an unusual twist, with the fate of three young Italian revolutionaries in exile in Istanbul…

Here’s the delicious new cover:

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It shows a detail from John Frederick Lewis’s Life in the Harem, Cairo, painted in 1854. I’ve written about him on the blog before, here.

So a happy New Year to all my Italian readers, and buon appetito!

The Yashim series

The Yashim series

Who’s Who in Yashim’s Istanbul

We must begin with the sleuth himself, of course. Yashim is as old as the 19th century, thirty six years old when he makes his first appearance in The Janissary Tree. He is the sultan’s confidential agent, or tebdil khasseky, in succession to Fevzi Ahmed – of whom much more in An Evil Eye (Yashim No. 4). Unlike Fevzi Ahmed, Yashim can visit anywhere and talk to anyone in Istanbul… for Yashim is a eunuch. Although he can make love, he will never father children.

You want to know how that works? Then you need to read Yashim No. 5, The Baklava Club. I’m afraid that’s all the explanation I can give you here.

I don’t want to press the eunuch theme (which makes some men cross their legs), but it is a metaphor for Yashim’s role as a sleuth. All through history, eunuchs were created to serve in the palace bureaucracy – it’s true for imperial China, and ancient Persia, as for the Byzantines and their successors, the Ottomans. Without family, their interests were allied with the ruler’s own ambitions and desires, making them men a ruler could safely trust.

The Byzantines are thought to have modelled their representations of angels on eunuchs: chaste, and intercessionary, passing between the divine and the sublunary world. Above all, their role is to serve.

Angel from a mosaic in La Matorana, a Byzantine church in Palermo

Angel from a mosaic in La Matorana, a Byzantine church in Palermo

So Yashim, too, serves his sultan, and the people, and the requirements of justice.

He is also a fabulous cook, preparing the Thursday night dinner for his old friend Count Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Porte, as the Ottoman court was called. He draws on the full repetoire of Ottoman Turkish dishes, many of them first elucidated in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace, where Yashim was trained. It’s this palace tradition that allows Turkish cookery to be ranked as one of the three great classical cuisines of the world. The other two are French and Chinese.

Chimneys of the kitchens at Topkapi

Chimneys of the kitchens at Topkapi

Turkish buns

Turkish buns

Yashim has been well-trained. He has worked in the palace, and out of it, for a Greek merchant. He speaks many languages, and reads voraciously – French novels are a favourite, passed to him by the Valide, the Queen Mother, of whom more in a subsequent post!

Jean Leon Gerome's finest work - Arnaut and his dog.

Jean Leon Gerome’s finest work – Arnaut and his dog.

The Ottoman Nose

Many of you will recognise this portrait of Mehmed II, the conqueror, who beseiged and took Constantinople in 1453, bringing the story of imperial Rome to its bitter end.

Mehmed the Conqueror

Mehmed the Conqueror

It’s a portrait I love, with its rich internal frame, and the sparkling rug draped over the sill. It belongs to the National Gallery in London, where it can be seen on, I think, alternate Wednesdays in the basement store. The whole mad, scarcely credible story of this picture – its loss and rediscovery, and the curious route it took to London – can be found in Yashim Number 3, The Bellini Card, which it of course inspired. The painting itself was done by Gentile Bellini when he spent two years in Constantinople in the late 1480s, as a guest of this Renaissance prince and sultan. His invitation to stay was the result of a peace treaty between the Venetians and the Ottomans.

Is the nose credible? It’s quite a conk. I used to wonder if an over-eager restorer had perhaps given it a slight tweak.

Fast forward five centuries, to the 1930s. We are now in the princely Indian state of Hyderabad, where Azam Jar, heir to the Nizam’s throne, is married to Princess Durru Shehvar (b. 1914). Her proper, Turkish name is Hatice Hayriye Ayşe Dürrüşehvar Sultan, as she is the daughter of  Abdülmecid II, the last heir to the Ottoman throne, and the last caliph.

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I don’t know who took the photo above, but you can see she was a strikingly beautiful woman. She died in London eight years ago, at the age of 92.

Cecil Beaton, the great society photographer, was clearly entranced by her. To judge by his portrait of Dürrüşehvar Sultan, he knew the Bellini, too.

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I make it thirty one generations between Mehmed the Conqueror and his linear descendant, Dürrüşehvar Sultan.

That’s thirty one generations, five centuries – and one glorious nose.