“Speaking about food or looking at old menus to explain the way culinary culture changes is one thing,” says Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies. “Hands-on exposure is another.” And so one evening in April, Kafadar led students in his course History 1878B: Ottoman State and Society, along with guests including CMES Visiting Researchers Bedriye Poyraz and Nil Tekgül, out of the classroom and into an industrial kitchen beneath freshman dining facility Annenberg Hall. There, under the guidance of acclaimed chef Ana Sortun—whose Cambridge-area restaurants Oleana, Sofra Bakery and Café, and Sarma are based in the cooking of Turkey and the Middle East—and ably assisted by Oleana junior sous chef Teddy Applebaum, students chopped, shredded, browned, and stuffed their way through a four-course meal of historically doumented Ottoman dishes.
“In class we talked a great deal about the history of commodities and changing patterns of consumption after Columbus and ocean voyages of the sixteenth century, and about the new kind of connectedness of the world that emerged, which we identify with the early modern era. One of the most interesting and important aspects of this period is rising volumes of trade of various new commodities traveling from one corner of the world to another.” This included commodities not only from the New World, but also from areas made more accessible by navigation around the Cape of Good Hope, or through trade routes that had nothing to do with European oceanic voyages. Coffee, for instance, came from Ethiopia via Yemen (where, as Kafadar explains, Sufis discovered its uses especially for nighttime vigils, and what they called “nimbleness of the mind”). “It’s the context of evolving trade of commodities that led us to look seriously at the history of food.”
Take tomatoes, unknown outside the New World prior to the early sixteenth century. “Every traditional cuisine has its own balance of sweet and sour and spicy and so on, and tomato eventually became a major balancing element in the cuisines of many Mediterranean countries. But before the use of tomatoes, sour grape juice and fruits were major balancing elements in Ottoman cooking.” Thus one of the dishes the class prepared was an elma (apple) dolma with lamb and sumac, a recipe from a mid-fifteenth-century palace menu from the court of Mehmed II that Kafadar translated. “Dolma of course is widely known, but none of us, including Ana, had heard of a dolma using a carved-out apple.” Similarly, sour grape juice (similar to French verjus) is not often used today but was an element of almost any warm meat dish of the sixteenth century.
While some students worked on dolma, others assembled spinach borek, a savory filled pastry made with sheets of phyllo, or yufka, dough, and a dish called “the mighty stew,” baked on a base of grilled bread, from a mid-eighteenth-century manuscript. The recipe, also translated by Kafadar, describes this dish as “the ultimate of stews,” which chefs used to test each other’s skills. A milk pudding rounded out the evening’s menu.
Kafadar first met Sortun, who has traveled extensively in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, several years ago, although he doesn’t remember for sure who introduced them. It was either former GSD professor Hashim Sarkis (now Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT), who designed the interior at Oleana, or former History and Middle Eastern Studies PhD student Şükrü Ilıcak, whose Turkish music ensemble often performed in the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard. The fact that it could have been either, Kafadar says, speaks to the many lasting connections that Sortun has developed with the Middle Eastern studies community at Harvard.
She and Kafadar first cooked together with students five years ago. “Like some orchestra conductors, some chefs prosper by being dictatorial. But Ana is quite the reverse. She thinks, she plans, and she prepares very well, but she doesn’t give the impression that everything is so disciplined. She’s soft-spoken and gentle with amateurs like us, which to me is a far preferable and ultimately more successful way of handling group work.” Kafadar says that, as much as a learning experience, the session was a social event, a way to develop cohesiveness among members of the class. “The students told me that it was a great experience getting to know their classmates in that context. They tell me they will now demand a cooking segment in every Harvard course they take.” He’s joking, but maybe only a little.