The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Kitchens and Cooking


Feeding the large numbers of visitors must have been a major activity in the daily life of the han. Food service for 200 or more people each day demanded organization. Notations in the deed charter of the Karatay Foundation and the book of Qadi Muhyiddun Ibnu Abduzzahir offer details concerning the service of food in hans, and give insight to the courtyard areas which would have been used as a kitchen. However, there is little architectural evidence for designated spaces for cooking. In general, hans have no identifiable spaces that can be defined as kitchens per se, with chimneys, prep troughs, fireplaces, and water systems. The traces of kitchens and storerooms have disappeared for the most part due to repairs and reconstruction, making a determination of their locations impossible.  It is probable that cooking may have gone on in one of the many rooms or arcades that line the courtyard. The Sultan Han Aksaray has two rooms in the courtyard which served as a refectory, and cooking may have been in them. A room to the right of the entry in the Pazar Han has now been transformed into the kitchen complete with the special standing oven needed to make the famous Tokat kebab, and one can imagine that such a set up would have been in place in the larger hans. However, most of the cooking must have taken place in the courtyard around a campfire.

Not all hans would have had specially-designated areas for a kitchen and larders. In the smaller hans and in the hans with a covered section only, cooking was probably done by each merchant or a system of a “communal table” was organized. However, much cooking, especially in the winter months, was done in the covered section, and this, in tandir ovens. Some hans display the remains of the traditional Anatolian tandir clay or stone pit ovens used for baking bread or roasting meat. Tandirs have been discovered during the excavations of the Susuz, Dokuzun Derbent and the Kizilören Hans. These were generally located on or near the loading docks. The ovens were fired by wood or charcoal. A tandir is a clay oven, sunk into a pit in the ground or in the platform. The pit is about a half a meter deep and wide, with a tiny opening to preserve the heat and a round cavity below for the embers and the cooking. The coals were placed at the bottom of the cavity. A hole at the bottom was provided to provide an air shaft, much like a modern barbecue grill. One of the most elementary ovens known, a tandir is especially efficient for baking flatbread. The dough was "slapped" on to the hot interior surface of the oven where it quickly baked like a pancake. When the bread is done and just about ready to fall off into the pit, the cook reaches in with a long metal hook and whisks it out. This type of bread baking can still be observed in villages in Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, India and Pakistan to this day. The tandir ovens were used to cook all kinds of stews and soups. The pot was lowered into the pit to sit atop the coals. Many Seljuk traditional recipes include long-simmered stews which would have found their haven here. In addition, a pan or a pot could be placed over the mouth of the tandir for faster cooking, such as for eggs or vegetables. While waiting for the bread and stews to be ready, travelers could warm their hands and backs in the proximity of this oven during the cold winter months.



A question remains as to how provisions were obtained, how they were brought to the han and how they were stored. It is probable that the local farmers and breeders brought their produce and livestock to the doors of the hans where it was sold. Grains, water, and butter were probably stored in large earthenware pots. In hans that included a kitchen, one of the covered rooms was used as a larder for food items.

The foundation document of the Karatay Han states that travelers were to be given 1 kg of bread and 250 grams of meat and a bowl of other various foodstuffs (grains and greens) per day. As was the custom in many soup kitchens and dervish lodges, halva made from honey was served as a treat on Friday nights. Seljuk soldiers ate a hearty breakfast of a hearty soup and bread, and then another meal in the late afternoon after their training maneuvers. Central Anatolian Turks today still enjoy soup for breakfast, and tend to take their dinner meal in the late afternoon, much earlier than in the West, both carry over traditions from the Seljuk era. We can assume that the meals eaten in hans, and the service was similar to this schedule. Individuals may have cooked their own food as well from the supplies carried in their backpacks.

The Karatay foundation document, ever a goldmine of information, also lists the inventory of the kitchen battery needed to cook and serve the guests: 50 large pots, 20 copper platters, 100 large wooden bowls, 50 wooden plates, 10 large, 5 medium and 5 small stewpots, 2 large caldrons, and 2 large basins. This kitchen battery must have been stored in one of the rooms surrounding the courtyard.

To discover some of the foods that would have been cooked in those pots, click here.






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