The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Seljuk Food, Han Food


 

Turkish cooking is a cuisine steeped in nomadic traditions, meaning it was one based on dishes that could be transported easily and eaten communally. Han food would have consisted of grilled meats, soups, long-simmering stews and flatbread; hearty and simple fare that could be prepared over campfires or in clay pit ovens. One can imagine the travelers gathered around the campfire of a han, telling stories of the road as they dipped their spoons into the same pot, and discussing long into the night, all huddled under their quilts under the stars in the evening chill.

Many of the foods eaten by the Seljuks are still cooked by Turks today, especially in Central Anatolia. These dishes serve as edible historical footprints leading from the caravan routes of the Seljuks into the modern kitchens of the Turkish Republic. Turkish food historians, such as the esteemed Nevin Halici and the energetic Ömer Akkor, have carried out exceptional research into the foods of the Seljuk era, and have done much to bring to life this enduring heritage of Turkish history. Their work has made it possible to imagine what dishes would have been cooked and served in a han.

Several prime resources exist for Seljuk food. Although they are not cookbooks, they mention food and shed light on the culinary traditions of the era. These are the Dictionary (Diwan Lughat al-Turk, or “Compendium of the languages of the Turks") written by Mahmud al-Kashgari (active 1050) to teach Turkish to Arabs, the Mesnevi of Mevlana (the 13th century Sufi mystic known in the West as Rumi), and the Book of the Wise by Aflaki (ca. 1286, author of texts on the virtues of Mevlana and his disciples).

The most extensive information on Seljuk food can be found in the work of Mevlana, who lived in the Seljuk era in Konya and is the founder of the Mevlevi order (known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes). The Sufi way (tariqat) is the spiritual path following the belief that Islamic mysticism leads directly to an understanding of God, and seeks to unite people in love and respect. To express his ideas on Sufism in his writings, Mevlana used various symbols, especially fables about animals and food. His countless references to food have made it possible to reconstruct the culinary traditions of the era. In addition, food was an important part of Mevlevi life. A dervish began his training in the kitchen, where the novice dervish would work for three years to learn the humility needed to be in service to others. Mevlana’s favorite cook, Ateş-bazi Veli, is buried in a handsome tomb in Konya which is visited as a pilgrimage site by chefs from all over the world. The food of the Mevlevis was refined and was thus much more sophisticated than the more rustic fare that would have been served in a han. It is thus important to differentiate between the elaborate Seljuk food prepared in the Mevlevi dervish lodge kitchens described by Mevlana from the more simple fare made in a han “kitchen” or around a campfire.

The Seljuks had four ways to cook food: cooking in water; frying (shallow and deep); dry heat (oven, griddle, in ashes, in a tandir); and cooking with fat and water in a pot (stews, casseroles). Perhaps the most characteristic trait of Seljuk food is that it is cooked on a very low heat and simmered for long periods of time. Cooking tools were sharp knives, wooden spoons, and sieves. Seljuk Turks (and French chefs still today) preferred to cook in copper pots as the heat is distributed very evenly. Copper pots are no longer used much today (except in the Tokat region), but examples of old copper pots may be seen in many ethnographical museums in Turkey. Food was served spread out on low tables close to the ground or on kilims and cloths spread out on the floor, and was eaten with wooden spoons. The Karatay Han foundation document gives details on the wooden bowls, spoons and the kitchen battery that would have been found in a larger han.

Remember as well that there were no tomatoes or potatoes in Turkey at this time. These foods made their appearance from the New World to Turkey in the late 19th century. Olive oil was not used for cooking by the Seljuks, but rather as fuel for oil lamps. The fat used in Seljuk cooking was limited to butter and sheep tail fat, and this, in hefty amounts. The fat obtained from fat-tailed sheep was used melted and strained for frying, or cut into cubes to be threaded on skewers for grilled kebabs.

The Seljuks cooked much offal, as no part of a lamb went unused. Tripe soup is still popular today in Konya, especially at the time of the Feast of the Sacrifice.

Fried or grilled fish would also have been consumed. Fish could have been eaten in the southern hans along the Mediterranean Sea, and would have been fished fresh from the fast-running rivers next to the Kargi and Kesikköprü Hans. The famous carp of Lake Beyşehir would have been grilled in the Eğirdir and Ertokuş Hans. Eggs in all forms would have been consumed as well.

A word on spices: it appears that few spices were used in Seljuk cooking, except for cinnamon, pepper and salt. Seljuk food was not spicy. Other staple cooking ingredients included honey, garlic, verjuice (a highly acidic juice made by pressing unripe grapes), pekmez (grape molasses), sugar, almonds, and sirkencübin (honey and vinegar).

It is interesting to note as well that many culinary traditions must have found their way into hans, as the merchants came from many different cultures and their various home cooking favorites must have swirled in the pots along with the traditional Seljuk fare, and created one of the first “fusion cooking” experiments.

 

A MENU for a SELJUK HAN

 

I EAT….A Nasreddin Hoja story.

 

In a small caravanserai four travelers were sitting eating the food which they had brought for themselves for their journey.

“I always eat almond paste and coriander-seed cakes with sugar plums,” said the rich merchant.

“I eat oatmeal and honey mixed with dried mulberries,” said the soldier.

“I eat dried curds and pistachio nuts with apricot puree,” said the scholar.

Having said their pieces, they all looked towards Nasreddin Hoja.

“I never eat anything else than wheat, carefully mixed with salt, water and yeast, and then correctly baked,” said the Hoja, unrolling a scrap of bread.

 

 

Many Seljuk recipes live on in Konya today, and it is possible for you to create an authentic meal identical to one that would have been eaten in a Seljuk han in the convenience of your modern kitchen. Missing of course will be the warmth of the tandir oven, the crackling campfire, the multilingual guests sitting cross-legged on the ground, dipping their wooden spoons into a communal pot, the bright kilims and cushions, the braying animals, and the stars twinkling in the jet black night sky….but your imagination will fill those in!

Many of the foods eaten by the Seljuks would be rather difficult to replicate in a modern home kitchen. These favorites include a whole roasted lamb on a spit, roast sheep’s heads (kelle), sheep’s trotters, herise (meat pounded into a paste), sheep’s brain, or neck of lamb (eaten as a savory soup or as a dessert (gerdan tatlisi). Indeed, tripe, duck tail fat and sheep trotters are not foods conveniently found on the shelves of supermarkets today!

Luckily, many recipes that have come down through the years can be adapted to today’s kitchens. Below, please find some recipes for Seljuk dishes which would have been cooked in the campfires and tandir ovens of Turkish hans. Enjoy making foods that Alaeddin Keykubad, Mahperi Hatun or Vizir Karatay would have eaten when visiting their hans.

 

BREADS

Flatbread (Girde Ekmeği)

Let’s start with the staff of life, for both the Seljuks and the Turks of today: bread. Bread similar to this would have been continually baked on the hot walls of the tandir ovens, filling the entire covered section with its aroma. The walls of the tandir were moistened and then the loaves were "slapped" on to the hot sides of the oven where they quickly baked. A long stick or hook lifts off the bread once done. Note: the dough of tandir bread is unleavened. This is the bread that Nasreddin Hoja savored!

7 cups of flour

1 teaspoon salt

4 cups water

Mix the flour and salt. Create a well in the middle of the flour and slowly add the water and begin to knead. When it becomes a dough, cover with a damp cloth and let stand for 10 minutes, then knead again. Repeat 3 times. Divide the dough into balls the size of your fist. Roll out the balls with a rolling pin, or the long thin Turkish stick known as the oklava. Make sure that the balls are no more than a 1/2 in thick and that they are perfectly round. Bake the rolled bread on an iron plate griddle like a pancake.

 

Flat baked bread (Bazlamaç)

This is a variant bread for the tandir oven. It is spread with butter when it comes out of the grill, which is the equivalent of the modern gözleme. It can also be covered with various fillings (meet, cheese, parsley) and eaten as a börek.

5 cups flour

½ cup hot water

1 teaspoon salt

2 ½ cups water

Pour 1 cup of flour in a bowl. Pour ½ cup hot water on the flour and mix. Let the mixture stand overnight. The next morning, begin to knead the dough, 2 ½ cups of water, salt and the remaining flour together. When the dough becomes soft, divide it into pieces. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough in to 7 circles, each ½ inch thick. Cook the bread on a large iron plate or a griddle.

 

Spinach Börek (Spinach Savory Pastry)

Böreks were a favorite dish of the Seljuks and were cooked on grills and in tandir ovens. This recipe uses spinach, but all types of herbs and cheese fillings can be used. Cooked in the heat of the tandir oven and spread with butter, böreks are indeed food worthy of paradise.

for the dough:

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 cups water

1 teaspoon butter

 

For the filling:

1 pound spinach

2 medium onions

4 tablespoons cooked shredded lamb

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

 

Mix the flour and salt. Make a hole in the middle of the flour and slowly add the water. Knead vigorously to make a dough. Divide the dough into balls, cover with a damp cloth and let sit. Clean the spinach and chop it. Dice the onion. Sauté the onion in the butter in a large pan until the onions are soft (approx. 10 minutes), then add the meat and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the spinach and pepper and cook until wilted. Set aside to cool a bit. Roll out the dough balls to form 10 inch circles. Spread some filling in the middle and fold in the edges. The böreks would have been then stuck to the dampened walls of the tandir, folded side inwards, to cook. Today, you can heat some butter on a griddle or a pan. Spread some butter on each side of the börek and fry. Or the böreks can be placed on a greased baking tray and baked in a very hot 475 degree F oven till golden.

 

SOUPS

Tandir Soup (Tandir Çorbasi)

To this day in small villages in Turkey, many homes have tandir ovens in their courtyards and use them for cooking and baking. Tandir soup is generally prepared in the evening, cooked overnight and eaten the next day. This sturdy soup would have been cooked in a pot set at the bottom of the tandir oven; ready at all times of the day. It would make a perfect soup for a slow cooker crock pot in today’s kitchens.

½ cup dried chickpeas

½ cup white beans

½ cup dried green lentils

3 cups meat broth

½ cup bulgur

1 teaspoon salt

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 T clarified butter

2 tablespoons of left-over chopped roasted meat

Soak the chickpeas, beans and lentils overnight. Fry the onion in butter until golden brown. Put the broth, pulses, bulgur, salt and water into a large pot and put on the stove. When the water begins to boil, add the onion and meat. Turn down to simmer and cook for 1 hour. Serves 8.

 

VEGETABLES AND SIDES

Pickled Turnips (Şalgam Turşusu)

Turks and Persians loved pickled vegetables, and turnips make a particularly crunchy and tangy treat which heightens the flavor of roast meats and bulgur. Every housewife has her own recipe and favorite vegetable, and seasonal pickling is a common culinary activity of Turkish women today.

2 pounds turnips

5 cups water

1 cup vinegar

1 teaspoon mustard

3 tablespoons salt

2 garlic cloves

Wash the turnips and slice into rings. Put turnips and water in a large pan and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 hour. Add the vinegar, salt, mustard and garlic to the warm water. Ladle the turnips into a glass Mason jar and seal tight. Let them season for 15 days, turning the jar over daily.

 

Wild Greens with Yogurt (Borani)

Wild greens served with yogurt is a dish that the Seljuks brought with them from their eastern homelands, and is a favorite dish that is still served in Central Asia and Persia today. Turkish women forage in the spring and summer in the highland meadows (yayla) to find edible plants that can be used in this dish. The tradition of gathering wild edible greens continues in villages throughout Turkey and constitutes an integral component of Turkish cooking. There are over 10,000 plant species in Turkey, more than all the countries of Europe combined! Approximately 50 kinds of wild herbs are commonly used in Turkish cooking and include purslane, madimak, mallow, hogweed, poppy, thistle, dandelions, sorrel, and knotweed. Each green gives a particular taste, and can be mixed and matched as seen fit by the cook. This borani is a perfect vegetarian dish.

2 pounds wild plants (mallow, spinach, labada, sorrel, madimak) Modern cooks can use spinach, dill, cilantro, scallions, etc.

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup bulgur (optional; can be added after the greens are wilted; usually added if spinach is the sole green)

3 garlic cloves

2 cups yogurt

2 tablespoons brown butter

Crush the garlic cloves into the yogurt and set aside while making the greens. Wash the wild greens thoroughly. Boil them for 5 minutes in a large pot full of water and drain. Start to sauté the diced onion in the olive oil and add then add the greens and stir together. Add the salt, cook 10 minutes more and remove from heat. Cool slightly and put into a platter. Pour the yogurt on top of the greens, drizzle with the butter and serve with fresh tandir bread.

 

Yogurt with Garlic

Aflaki mentions that Mevlana was very fond of yogurt with garlic. Strained yogurt (much like the Greek yogurt sold in supermarkets today) works best here. This yogurt is served as an accompaniment to just about anything, and the dish eaten today with added cucumbers (cacik) probably originated during the Seljuk era.

1 cup of thick Greek yogurt or strained yogurt

1/2 cup water

2 cloves of chopped garlic

salt (to taste)

Mix the yogurt and water. Chop the yogurt and grind it with the salt. Mix with the yogurt and let stand for at least 4 hours to let the garlic flavor bloom.

 

Chopped Onions with Parsley and Sumac

Order a kebab today in Turkey, and this simple salad will be served alongside of it, often with parsley. It is certain that it dates from the Seljuk era. Sumac (Rhus coriariais) is a wonderful spice that is used on salads of all sorts to impart a soft, almost lemony, tang and especially to add a flush of red color. It can be purchased in specialty spice shops or online. Once you start to use it, you will be hooked!

4 onions

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sumac

Cut the onions into very thin slices. Sprinkle with salt and set aside for three minutes. Rub the onions and salt together with your hands, a process known in Turkish as “killing” onions. Rinse and squeeze out the excess moisture. Mix with the sumac and serve. Serves 4.

 

GRAINS and PULSES

Bulgur Pilav (Bulgur Aş)

“Pilav” means a cooked bulgur or rice dish. Although rice existed in the Seljuk era it was considered a rich man’s fare, and the Seljuk Turks preferred bulgur. The lentils and grains of bulgur found at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük near Konya indicate that the people in the region have been eating them for over 9,000 years, and it is certain they were prepared in much the same way then as they are now. This recipe is one of the standard dishes of Konya kitchens today, especially in lower-income families. It accommodates left-over meat perfectly, stretches far, and is eaten communally from a big platter set in the middle of the table. Today, this dish is always served with ayran, as it must have been in the days of the Seljuks. This dish would have been a perfect dish for cooking at the bottom of a tandir oven in a han. It can be made plain without meat (but the meat stock is important), and with either lentils or chickpeas added.

2 T clarified butter

1 onion, finely chopped

1 ½ cups of bulgur (medium to coarse)

4 cups of meat stock

1 ½ cups of finely chopped left over roast lamb meat (or less if you don’t have much as left overs; beef and chicken can also work; added meat is optional)

Fry the onions in butter. Add the bulgur and continue to fry. Add the meat, stock and cover. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and cover. Simmer for 20 minutes until the bulgur becomes soft. Then fry 2T of butter until it gets brown and pour over the bulgur and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Yes, it’s that simple to make something this delicious for dinner!

 

Chick Pea Stew (Nohutlu Yahni)

Mention the word “chickpea” to a Sufi and he will smile quietly to himself. This extremely simple stew would have been a stable of han tandir cooking, but above all, it teaches us a lesson of life. One of the most famous parables of Mevlana concerns the lowly chickpea. All of Rumi’s work is permeated with verses that praise God, speak of His grandeur and how it reveals itself in different aspects of life. He wrote about sublime concepts using everyday metaphors. In this story from the Mesnevi, a cook put a pot of chickpeas on the fire, much as you will do when you make this stew. When the water came to a boil, the chickpeas started to cry out in pain and began leaping up in all directions to escape the stew. The chickpeas asked the cook why they are being so harshly treated. Swatting them down with a ladle, she said, “I am not burning you because I hate you, but as a favor so that you mix with spices and rice and become a delicious meal for a human being. Remember when you drank rain in the garden? Well, that was for this.’ The chickpeas understand and then gladly boil till they are soft and worthy of being eaten. The moral of the story is that we must suffer to become a true human being in service to others. Sufis believe that the trial and tribulations of life, like this boiling, are needed to purify the heart of selfishness. Being “cooked” requires getting rid of one’s ego, which is a painful process and never easy. Whenever I make this stew, I look at those chickpeas and remember that our hearts are like the chickpeas, hard and in need of being cooked in the fire of Divine love.

1/2 cup chickpeas soaked overnight in water

1 pound of lamb meat (with bones, the better)

2 peeled onions

4 cups water

salt to taste

Put the chickpeas and the meat in a saucepan along with the onion. Add the water and put on to heat. When it comes to a boil, skim off the foam at the top, cover, and cook for 70-80 minutes on a low heat until the meat and chickpeas are tender. Add the salt and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the onion and ladle the stew into serving dishes. Serves 4.

 

MEATS AND MAIN COURSES

Bread Soaked in Gravy (Tirit)

The ultimate comfort food and a favorite of Mevlana, tirit is a Central Anatolian staple since the days of the Seljuks, and has inspired folksongs and love poems. As it is a sin to throw away bread according to the tenets of the Islamic faith, this dish accommodates left-over bread beautifully. The Seljuks used trotters instead of stock bones and believed that the best broth was made from the necks of sheep. Modern cooks also add a layer of yogurt, making this dish a variant of the modern Iskender Kebab. There are many regional variants of this dish.

7 cups water

5 stock bones

1 pound bony lamb

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

8 slices of stale flatbread

5 garlic cloves

2 tsp sumac

4 onions thinly sliced

salt

4 tablespoons browned butter

15 leaves of fresh mint (I prefer parsley)

Put the water, bones, meat, salt and pepper in a large pot. When it comes to a boil, skim off the foam. Turn heat to medium high and boil for 2 hours until the meat falls off the bone. Add the salt and let sit. Mix the onions with the salt and set aside for 5 minutes, then rub by hand (“killing” the onions), rinse and squeezed well, then sprinkle with sumac. Break the bread into pieces into bowls or a large baking dish or rimmed platter and cover with the onion sumac mixture. Debone the meat and shred it over the bread. Pour the boiled broth over the bread. Pour the browned butter over the top. Arrange the chopped mint or parsley around the edges. Serves 8.

 

Roasted Chicken (Söğülme Tavuk)

Middle Eastern cooking often uses cinnamon when cooking meats. Chickens would have been cooked at the bottom of the tandir oven. Duck, game and turkey could also be cooked this way. The Seljuk Sultans were very fond of hunting game birds such as partridge and quail, and built special hunting pleasure pavilions in the countryside for this purpose. Game birds are also frequently depicted on the tiles of Kubadabad, the palace of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad on Lake Beyşehir.

1 whole chicken

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon cinnamon

3 tablespoons butter

 

Rub the chicken with salt, pepper and cinnamon. Generously oil a copper tray with butter put the chiken on it and bake at 320°F (160° C) for one hour.

 

Oven-roasted Lamb (Firin Kebab)

Ask a Konevi (as the residents of Konya are called) to name his favorite dish to eat, and it will most likely be this one or etli ekmek, the Konya version of a börek. Nothing is simpler; nothing more succulent. Place a lamb shank in a roasting pan and cook at a very low heat (275-300°F), for 5-7 hours, turning occasionally (this dish is similar the French 7-hour roast lamb, without the garlic) A very fine firin kebab is served today in the restaurant operating in the Emir Kandemir-Kuruçeşme Han.

 

SWEETS AND DESSERTS

The Seljuks had quite a sweet tooth as do Turks today. Rock sugar candy and candied almonds were a favorite. Candy sellers were called shaker-furush and one of the most famous of the small mosques in Konya, built in 1220, was called the Sekerfurush Mosque. The king of desserts was halva, hands-down.

 

Honey Halva (Bal Helvasi)

As promised in the Karatay foundation document, halva was served as a special treat for dinner on the holy day of Friday. Mevlana was very fond of it, if the numerous mentions of it in his writings are any indication. Turkish halva has a grainy and loose consistency, and should not be confused with the modern taffy-like confectionary treat sold in bars. Seljuk (and Ottoman) halva is made today in versions with tahini, flour, semolina, sesame, pistachios or pine nuts, but the true Seljuk halva is the honey version. This very same halva is still served as a treat at festivals and weddings in Central Anatolia today. Halva is not always an easy dish to make, and for this reason, the Seljuks (and Ottomans) had dedicated halva cooks (halvagar).

2 cups flour

1 cup butter (2 sticks)

1 1/2 cups honey

1 3/4 cups water

Put the flour and butter in a large pan. Begin to brown over low heat. Continue for 45-60 minutes until the flour becomes golden but not too dark and to the point when the smell of the flour has gone and it has taken on a gold color. Mix the honey with hot (not boiling) water. Slowly add it to the flour mixture, stirring constantly. When it no longer sticks to the side of the pan, cover, turn off the heat and let cool for 15 minutes before serving. It is spooned out into dishes much like ice cream. Press the halva down to make a smooth surface. It should be served very warm, so that it literally melts in your mouth.

 

 

BEVERAGES

The Seljuks, like Turks today, have a special fondness for fruit drinks, which they call sherbet (not to be confused with the modern flavored frozen dessert). Most any fruit can serve to make a sherbet, but the Seljuks drank mostly pomegranate and grape molasses (pekmez) sherbets. The Seljuks used ice in their sherbets in the summer, and there are two ice-houses in the Konya area thought to have been built in the latter half of the thirteenth century by the Seljuk Vizier Sahib Ata Fahr al-Din Ali to store ice throughout the year. They also drank vinegar juice sweetened with honey and mint, and the yogurt drink ayran. We also know that the Seljuks enjoyed wine: the court historian Ibni Bibi relates many a scene of royal banquets where wine flowed fast and free. It is also believed that the Sarapsa Han was named for the wine steward (Şarapsas) of the sultan.

 

Ayran (Yogurt with water drink)

Ayran is, along with tea, the Turkish national drink of today. It is nothing more that watered down yogurt with salt added, but when cooled, it is a refreshing drink that marries perfectly with meat dishes. It was a common drink in the Sufi kitchen and it is certain it was served in hans as well. One of Mevlana’s most famous quotes goes: “Just as the fat in ayran is hidden, the essence of truth is buried in lies.”

1 cup of thick or regular yogurt

1 ½ cups of water

Salt to taste (don’t be shy)

Put everything together in a pitcher and whisk together or in a big jar and shake away. Let it sit for a few hours to let the salt take hold. Shake or stir before serving.

 

Pomegranate Sherbet (Nardenk Şerbeti)

This pomegranate drink is a bit sharper than the sugar-laden pomegranate juices now sold in supermarkets. It is a bit laborious to make (and watch out for stains!) but the flavor is very fresh and tangy. However, when I don’t have time, I use the pomegranate juice sold in supermarkets cut with water and with some added lemon juice.

10 large pomegranates

Copper sieve

Clean white muslin cloth

3 cups of sugar cubes

Divide the pomegranates down the middle. Empty the pomegranate seeds into a large bowl by hitting the rind with a wooden spoon. The seeds should drop down between your fingers. Crush the seeds in a copper sieve and strain. Then strain the juice through a clean piece of muslin cloth into a medium pan. Add the sugar and turn on the heat. Boil until the color turns dark and the juice thickens. Add water after it cools and serve.

 

Coffee (Kahve)

Mevlana mentions coffee in the Mesnevi. It is possible that it could have been drunk in a han, made in the embers of a campfire. Although tea has been consumed in China for 5,000 years, it did not make its appearance in Persia and Central Asia until the 15th century and to Turkey in the mid-20th century.  The Seljuks thus would not have known this drink. It is not known how the coffee was prepared in the Seljuk era, but it is probably similar to the Turkish coffee prepared today, which is made from very finely ground coffee boiled with water in a special pot known as a cezve.

 

 

 

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