I’ve been accused of trying to have it both ways by making Yashim, my Ottoman sleuth, a terrific cook. After all, on current strength, if he ever lost his knack as an investigator he could probably get a job as a TV chef. He’s smart, he’s organic – it’s the 1840s, after all – and he cooks the kind of eastern Mediterranean food that makes Moro, say, so successful.
What’s more, barring the occasional interruption, his repertoire of Ottoman recipes can be followed the reader.
And he’s not the only cooking detective on the block, either.
That said, Yashim’s cooking is very far from cynical.
Firstly, its a character trait: he’s a eunuch, so cooking is something sensual. Secondly, it’s a practical device: a detective needs thinking-time, and something to do while he’s thinking, so cookery is perfect.
Thirdly, most importantly, I’m writing about a distinct time and place, for a food-literate audience. In each book I’m trying to evoke the wider culture of the Levantine world, as it developed under Ottoman rule. Of course, I relish the twisting intrigue of the plot, but the cooking is ideal for evoking Istanbul’s gentler side, its multi-ethnic character, its devotion to the arts of peace and pleasure. Ottoman civilization had its rawer points, politically, but at a social level it was always a place in which good food and fellowship could flourish over a glass of raki and a table of delicious mezze, a world of marriage feasts and holidays and everyday good dishes, inspired by – and inspiring – a palace cuisine which ranks with the great cookery of China and France.
None of us, I guess, will ever solve a murder in the harem, but we can all discover how to make lamb’s liver the way the Albanians do, or imam bayildi, or a gypsy salad.
Food parcels from another world….