Category Archives: Istanbul mysteries

Pleasing the Guild

Count Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Sublime Porte, burst into the room, waving a paper.

‘Yashim! Yashim! Have you seen this?’

Yashim glanced over his shoulder, knife poised above a bowl of little artichokes. ‘No. But have you seen one of these?’ He held an artichoke by its stem and twirled it in mid-air. ‘George brought them in from Kadikoy this morning. Grown in his garden. The smallest artichokes – you could almost eat them raw.’

‘Stop babbling, Yash.’ Palewski flung the paper onto the sofa, and tapped at it. ‘Le Moniteur Ottoman. You’ve seen it?’

‘Seen it?’ Yashim looked blank.

‘You’re in it, Yashim. Prizes, glory!’ He snatched up the paper and squinted at the front page. ‘Well, glory at least. You might not actually win the prize. It depends on what the Guild decide.’

‘The Guild? What Guild – of Soup Makers?’ Yashim had a momentary vision of old Mustafa, the Albanian Guild Master, lowering his moustaches over a steaming bowl of tripe soup. After what had passed between them during the period of The Janissary Tree, Yashim thought it unlikely that Mustafa would be handing him a prize.

Palewski sat down, and spread Le Moniteur across his knees. ‘Not the Soup Makers, no. But affiliated to them, maybe. Food Writers,’ he read slowly. He looked up. ‘The Guild of Food Writers. They’ve made a list of books they might give a prize to, and you’re on it. For your first cook book.’

Yashim laid down the knife and folded his arms. ‘But I haven’t written a cookbook.’

Palewski waved away his objection. ‘No, no, but someone did, and they based it all on you. Comes to the same thing. Your cooking, Yash. Leeks in oil, and chicken with walnuts, and that excellent thing you do with lamb, you know, from Konya? In the sealed pot. Book’s got your name on it, too. “Yashim Cooks Istanbul.” They say it’s awfully good.’

‘Who says?’

‘Oh, all the chaps. NPR and the New York Times. Delicious. It’s like Le Moniteur, but for cooking. And now the Guild have chosen it for their shortlist.’

‘I – I’m very grateful.’

‘I think,’ Palewski said slowly, turning his head to look at the small bag on the floor at the end of the sofa: ‘I think –‘

‘It calls for celebration?’

‘What an idea, Yashim! But yes, why not? If you insist. I happen to have a very good bottle of champagne, the real thing, left by those Italian boys in the Baklava Club. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean…’

‘No, no.’ Yashim gave him a reassuring smile. ‘The Baklava Club. It’s all over now. Fetch out your champagne. I’ll get the glasses.’

The bottle was cold. The cork flew. Yashim drank, but lightly, listening to Palewski talking happily of the Istanbul cook book, and the pilaf with hazelnut and lemon, and a fish, poached in paper – and a dish of beef, with sorrel sauce, which took the ambassador home again, to the shores of the Vistula, and the rolling foothills of the Tatra mountains.

Yashim Cooks Istanbul: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen has been shortlisted for the 2017 GFW First Book Award, the most prestigious in food writing and broadcasting. Copies are available signed and postage free here: YASHIM COOKS

 

 

Crisis averted: what to do on the plane!

Since the US and UK banned laptops and tablets from the airplane cabins on flights originating in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, I’ve read some really daft articles addressing the desperate question: what can I do on the plane?

Here’s one, from Bloomberg: Hacks to Survive a Twenty Hour Flight – without a laptop or tablet!

One answer might be: read a book. Revolutionary? Perhaps all first class travel could look like this?

Here’s my list for travellers coming out of Turkey:

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

The latest novel by the wonderful Elif Shafak, who first burst onto the scene with her punchy, funny and tragic novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Elif writes about women negotiating their power and their position in a man’s world, and she does it with sly humour, tenderness, and a wonderful feel for historical time and place. The action kicks off when a beggar snatches the handbag of a wealthy Turkish housewife on her way to a smart Istanbul dinner party. Out drops an old photo… and with it, a life and love that Peri has tried to forget.

Istanbul: Poetry of Place, edited by Ates Orga

Packed with poetry and a little prose, all set in the former capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, Istanbul: Poetry of Place brings you the voices of the city’s inhabitants, from sultans to modern-day feminists.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Complex, fragmentary, unreliable and poetic, this thoroughly postmodern novel abounds with puns, ironies, double-takes and imponderable conflicts of love, faith and social justice, reflecting not only aspects of the human condition but also of 20th-century Turkey’s preoccupations with secularism, religious freedom and revolution. In the city of Kars, a young journalist, Ka, comes to investigate a spate of suicides relating to the wearing of headscarves – and opens up a kaleidoscopic world of claims, counter-claims and conflicting priorities.

Turkey: a Short History by Norman Stone

A fanfare for modern Turkey and a vivid, provocative, often funny, always insightful account of how it came about. Stone pulls together his accomplishments as a philoturk, a philologist, controversialist and narrative historian to sweep his readers along a short crash course in Turkish origins, their history and current challenges. If you don’t really know why a portrait of Ataturk hangs in almost every shop in Turkey, read this book.

Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire by Philip Mansel

The definitive history of the city from 1453, by one of our finest historians, also explains how a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire was controlled by a single dynasty for more than 600 years. Mansel mines a vast range of sources to bring the fashions, pomp and politics of this ancient world capital to life.

Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières

I keep picking this up – and putting it down again, because I can’t quite face the onrushing tragedy. Needless to say, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between Philotei and Ibrahim, as relations between Greece and Turkey collapse in the First World War; prelude to the massive population exchange of 1923, which ended Greek settlement of Asia Minor. Gallipoli is in it; so is Ataturk; so are some characters from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. De Bernières insists this is the better book and I believe him.

Eothen by AW Kinglake

The title, which means “from the east” is, as the author points out, the hardest thing in the book, a sly travel account purporting to be written by a Victorian hooray which makes for spectacularly funny reading. Jonathan Raban has described the narrator as having the “sensibility of someone who is a close blood-relative of Flashman”: witness his thoroughly waspish account of a meeting with Lady Hester Stanhope. Typical, too, is his insouciance towards the plague in Cairo, which claims his heroic doctor while the narrator survives unmoved.

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

The three volumes of his magisterial history, boiled down into one, may seem too condensed at times, but Norwich deftly and entertainingly outlines the often outrageous story of an empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days. It is as good on Byzantine art and church matters as on the peccadilloes of the emperors – and their triumphs.

Rebel Land by Christopher de Bellaigue

Caught up in a journalistic furore after his mention of the Armenian massacres that occurred in the dying days of the Ottoman empire, de Bellaigue decided to find out for himself what may have happened. He settled on – and in – the town of Varto, which once had a huge Armenian population. Without delivering any final answers, de Bellaigue’s beautifully written account of his experiences with locals, secret policemen and even exiles still sheds light on this intractable issue, if only to illuminate the complexity of the situation both then and now.

The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White

The first of the Kamil Pasha detective stories, set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, kicks off with a body on the beach. Kamil Pasha, the Anglophile Ottoman detective, must draw together the threads of this murder and of an older, unsolved crime, sifting through the murky waters of late Ottoman politics and society. Sequels are The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief.

Yashim: Don’t forget that all five Yashim novels are available as a set from Amazon.com and from Amazon.co.uk – and in dozens of languages, too. Meanwhile The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone are published in Turkey by Pegasus as Yeniceri Agaci  and Yılanlı Sütun

selling out

When a book sells out, and it’s your book, which means they liked it, you may well want to punch the air, or kiss a policeman, or whatever. I think you are allowed. Just don’t kiss the air and punch a policeman, that’s all.

But then, when an ENTIRE COUNTRY sells out of your book, you may realise that while it’s great in its way, in another way it’s problematical.

America has sold out of Yashim Cooks Istanbul. Only last week we had a huge load, palletfuls of Yashim Cooks Istanbul, boxed and sitting cosily in the distributor’s warehouse in Chambersburg, PA. Then everyone ran out at once and went to buy a copy. Almost every American – well, they mostly didn’t run anywhere further than their mouse pad, where they feverishly clicked on the link – http://amzn.to/2gbTAz3, if you don’t believe me – and swept all available copies out of the online warehouse. Who instantly reordered, thus sweeping all available copies out of the Chambersburg warehouse and into the mailboxes of a few quick-thinking Yashim afficionados and leaving a note saying that the book was temporarily out of stock. Continue reading

Yashim Steps Out

I’m told that tickets for my first Yashim Cooks Istanbul gig have sold out, which has to be good news. Although I remember being told the same thing by the nice people at Faber at the launch party for The Janissary Tree, and wondering if publishers lived on the same planet as the rest of us.

Picture the scene: I assemble a hundred or so of my closest friends and relations, along with the great and the good of Fleet Street, Grub Street and the BBC, hire splendid Georgian rooms in Fitzroy Square, lay on everlasting fizz, engage professional belly dancers, no less – and half an hour into the jamboree the publishers come up smiling and rubbing their hands to tell me ‘We’ve sold out of books! Congratulations!’

Sold out! Jolly well done!

Sold out! Jolly well done!

Anyway, no more tickets for November 12th at the Bridport Literary Festival: but we have other things planned for later, elsewhere.

If anyone wants to pre-order Yashim Cooks Istanbul, you can get signed copies here, free of postage. Also you can pre-order them on Amazon in the UK for £19.99, although they won’t be signed. I expect Amazon.com in the US will offer something similar very soon. Yashim Cooks Istanbul makes a really good present, with a whiff of Ottoman spice.

Many of you have asked when Yashim will emerge from his retirement and engage in a new adventure. Well, he has one rather short adventure chronicled in a collection of stories entitled SUNSHINE NOIR, all mystery stories by crime writers who eschew the frigid wastes of Scandinavia in favour of southerly heat and sweat (not but that it usually snows in Istanbul, but we will let that pass). My story is called Chronos and Kairos, about an occasion when Yashim borrowed a watch. Some of you may remember young Compston, of the British Embassy in Istanbul, bleating about his father’s Hunter in An Evil Eye: it’s that watch. Different occasion.

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Print editions are on their way, apparently, but if you use Kindle then it’s available there already.

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 – 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!

 

 

 

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.