The Development of Turkish Food Culture Before the Ottoman Empire

When considering the development of Turkish food culture, the Ottoman Empire and the kitchens of Topkapı Palace are often the first thing to come to mind. However, before the Ottomans became a powerful empire, there were many Turkic tribes living throughout Asia and the Middle East. These Turkic people living before the Ottoman Empire was established also made large contributions to what is modern Turkish food culture.

The name “Turk” was actually first used by the Chinese in the 600s to describe nomadic people who established a large empire stretching from Mongolia to the Black Sea. Because of their past geographic proximity, the cuisine of the people of Northern China is related to Turkish cuisine. Northern Chinese cuisine, like Turkish cuisine, is based on wheat (rather than rice) and animal husbandry. Additionally, the Turkish word mantı is believed to be an evolved version of the Chinese word mantou, which describes a similar wheat-based dumpling from Northern China.

The nomadic Turkic people lived off their herds and the milk and milk products the herds could produce. For example, they milked their animals and stored it for traveling in the stomachs of slaughtered animals, which caused the milk to curdle and make yoğurt.

Modern Turkish shepherd with his sheep and goats in the Aegean region.

Modern Turkish shepherd with his sheep and goats in the Aegean region.

Over time the Turks migrated toward Anatolia, and the Selçuk Turks in particular were very successful in conquering lands throughout the Middle East. Most importantly, they were able to defeat the Byzantine Empire’s soldiers at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which opened up Anatolia for Selçuk Turk occupation (except for the city of Constantinople, which the Byzantines still held onto). This period of Selçuk Turk occupation of Anatolia also offers insight into the origins of modern Turkish food culture.

Yusuf Has Hacib and Kaşgarlı Mahmud are the two Turkish writers who gave the most information from the Selçuk Turk period. The kitchens in nomadic Turkish homes were called aşlık (a place where food was made); however, in modern Turkish the word for kitchen, mutfak, is derived from the Arabic word matbah. Still,  means food and aşevi is soup-kitcken for poor people. There are many over-1000-years-old Turkish words that remain similar to the originals, or unchanged.

Selçuk kitchen bowls and pitchers from the Gevher Nesibe Hospital Museam in Kayseri, Turkey.

Selçuk kitchen bowls and pitchers from the Gevher Nesibe Hospital Museam in Kayseri, Turkey.

Old Turkish- Modern Turkish- English

Bardak- Bardak- Glass

Selçi biçek- Aşçı bıçağı- Cook’s knife

Tewsi- Tepsi- Baking pan

Şiş- Şiş- Skewer

Kaşuk- Kaşık- Spoon

In the 11th century, Turks sometimes called the sofra the tergi (laying the sofra:tergi urmak). Yusuf Has Hacib described the culture surrounding the sofra or tergi during that time period:

The house, hearth, sofra and plates should be clean. The room must be outfitted with cushions, and the food and drink should be top quality. Again, so that the guests may eat comfortably, the foods and drinks should be clean and flavorful. All that is to be eaten and drunk should compliment each other and be abundant. The guest should never run out of drink, and when one drink is finished should be immediately replenished. […] After the food and drink, give nuts and fruit.

The etiquette of the Selçuk Turk period also followed some basic rules, including: do not eat until those older than you have begun, do not over-eat, eat all that is offered to you so that the woman who prepared the food will be pleased, take small bites of food, do not wipe your hands on the sofra, and do not make those around you uncomfortable for any reason.

There were also some ideas about nutrition at the time, particularly regarding hot and cold foods. For example, in youth, it was recommended to eat cold things because the blood was thought to warm them. In later adulthood, people were recommended to eat mostly hot things. By age 60, hot foods only should be consumed. Another important message was that to remain healthy, one must take a medicine called “little”- meaning that people should always eat little to live a long life.

The most famous food of the Selçuks was tutmaç, a yogurt based soup made with square noodles and meat. Lamb and mutton were also consumed in great quantity. The Turks of the 11th century called animals fed and prepared for slaughter etlik (suitable for meat), just as modern usage of etlik means a male goat with suitable meat.

The decline of the Selçuks began in 1243 when they were defeated by the Mongol invasion of Anatolia; however, many smaller Turkic tribes broke away from the Selçuks and began to establish principalities under Mongol power. Turkic principalities such as Mentese, Aydin, Saruhan, and Ottoman, became autonomous but paid tribute to a new master, the Il Khanid Mongols of Iran. By the end of the 1200s, the Mongols began to lose power and those Turkic chiefs became more independent. The Ottomans would rise to become the longest lasting empire in human history, and continue the development of Turkish food culture.

This is an article I wrote for the Syracuse University Turkish Student Association Newsletter, OrangeTurk.


Genç R. Turkish Cuisine in the 11th Century. Turkish Cuisine Web site. Updated 2011. Accessed December 30, 2014

Turks. (2013). In The Columbia Encyclopedia.