The Pasah of Cuisine is a novel set in the Ottoman Kitchens. It follows the story of The Cook a man as he uses his unique culinary talents to manipulate his way into the heart of the ottoman Government. Saygın Ersin very kindly agreed to answer some questions about this unique historic novel.
Luke: What do you like to cook?
Saygın: First, I have to confess that I am neither a big cook nor a gourmet. But I can cook, I like to cook and as a single man I have to cook. I have some special plates, of course, onion salad for example; the first ever –and the last- recipe that I’ve learned from my father. Işkembe soup; another recipe that I’ve learned from another great man in my life. On the other hand, if I am hungry enough or if I have precious guests, every possible dish is okay for me. I like to try new things. I like kitchen challenges more than special and specific cooking acts.
Luke: The reason I picked up your book in the first place was that I found the setting fascinating, something I hadn’t seen before in historic fiction. Can you tell me why you chose the Ottoman kitchens as a setting?
Saygın: Because the Ottoman era, Ottoman atmosphere is our very attractive “Fantasy Relam”. It is our Neverland, it is our Narnia, Westeros and Middle Earth. It has a magical atmosphere; very real on one side and very ‘dreamy’ on the other. Also it is so flexible. You can write a realistic – political novel in that atmosphere and you can also write a mystical novel like the Pasha of Cuisine in the same atmosphere. It welcomes almost all kinds of fiction. Naturally, the atmosphere of the Ottoman kitchen has the same characteristics with the general atmosphere: Flexible, attractive, real and mystical, socially complex, historically exciting and culturally rich. I am writing in the Turkish language and feeling myself very luck that I have an atmosphere, a ‘writing realm’ like that. It’s a treasure!
Luke: In the book the Pasha of cuisine is described as one who brings about the golden era of food. Do you believe that durning the middle Ottoman period their was one of these periods and why?
Saygın: Yes, I believe that, but not because of some ‘mystical’ reasons like I’ve written in the Pasha. Any kitchen in the world can experience it’s own golden era and this is possible with two simple prerequisites: Money and cultural complexity. When we look at the history, we see that some kitchens had developed because of poverty but the common rule is that the kitchens develop as they begin cooking for the elites. Every cook knows that almost half of the ‘good food’ depends on high quality ingredients. Two factors can make this high-quality flow possible: Money and information. The budgets of the kitchens must be high and the cooks have to be well informed about different ingredients, their sources and applications. Let me give you an historical statistic: During the classical era of the Ottoman Empire, the amount of the spices consumed only in one month in İstanbul is equal to the annual spices consumption of Paris. And we have to keep in mind that İstanbul, was in the cross-roads of the cultures and it was the capital of the super-power. Those are heavenly gifts for a cuisine to experience it was a golden era…
Luke: To what extent do you believe that the Ottoman culinary tradition is still alive in modern Turkey? Where can I eat some of the more exotic food mentioned in the book today?
Saygın: Of course it is still alive but not that much… This is the ‘curse’ of the ‘elite kitchens’. As it hd not adopted itself to the ordinary kitchens of the people, most of the recipes have been lost. It is very difficult to find authentic recipes and dishes. Nowadays, if you want to taste some real Ottoman food, you should find a cook or a restaurant which has a special interest on Ottoman cuisine. And even in Istanbul the number of restaurants and cooks with that interest is very low.
Luke: Do you know of any examples? I’m feeling hungry.
Saygın: Asitane Restaurant I can say. They are really enthusiastic about Ottoman cuisine and their menus are interesting and authentic…
Luke: Through the course of the book The Pasha of Cuisine picks up mystical cooking powers? What led you to the idea that food and magic have a connection?
Saygın: Isn’t cooking very similar to sorcery? You are putting different ingredients, different tastes into a pot, and you are transforming them into a totally different ‘one and the whole’ taste! And think about your aims when you are cooking and eating. It is not just about ‘the hunger’. The terms cooking, eating, the table have connections with social and individual feelings of the people. Food is about prestige, it is about social existence, it is about love, even about sex and passion. And yes, with cooking you can manipulate all those feelings and attitudes. Isn’t it a serious sorcery?
Luke: It’s interesting Alan Moore says a very similar thing about writing. That the way that ideas get mixed and applied is a kind of sorcery. Does that feel right to you?
Saygın: Absolutely. And it is very powerful kind of sorcery, directly affecting the people’s, even societies’ minds. Together with the ideas, there are more magical ingredients in it such as imagination, dreaming, narrating, labour, discipline and courage.
Luke: Your Book is full of fascinating details about the practical side of life in the Palace kitchen, the cooks routines, their techniques and recipes. What kind of research did you do while writing this book?
Saygın: I did some very very deep research…The main problem was that, our history of gastronomy is very young. It is very difficult to collect information from specific books and articles. For nearly one and a half year, I’ve read everything I’ve found about that period of the Ottoman empire.and I’ve picked up the knowledge I need from a wide variety of sources.
Luke: One of the things that I look for in historic fiction is getting the period setting right. However, I also believe that getting the physical details, dress, architecture and food right is the easier part. For me, I think the greatest challenge for a writer is being able to capture the voices of people who lived so long ago, who had very different outlooks to us today. How did you approach this problem?
Saygın: If you read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, you will see a short chapter at the end of the book, in which Eco talks about the ‘writing process’ of the novel. I will never forget what Eco said in that chapter: You have to know! You have to know all details about your atmosphere, even if you will not write all of them down. And then, you have to imagine with that information very well too. I think that is the secret for capturing the voices and true appearances of the historical people in a novel. You have to know their physical, social and mental atmospheres very well. When I was doing my research, I did not focus only on the culinary history, I also read much about the daily life of that era. And on the other hand, I was very luck about the editor. Mr. Selahattin Özpalabıyıklar, a giant editor of Turkish literature, has taken the novel to an upper level. Without him, it would have been very difficult to catch that ‘daily soul’.
Luke: I feel as a setting the Ottoman empire is underused in historic fiction. What other periods or settings in the Ottoman Empire do you think would make interesting novels?
Saygın: You can write a novel over almost every era of any culture or state. The thing we call ‘atmosphere’ is an apparatus at the last instance. The secret is always in the story, in the fiction. If you can find the ‘true story’ and if you can make it fit with the atmosphere that you’ve chosen, then you can write a very interesting novel.
Luke: Are their any other Ottoman historic novels that you think should be translated into English?
Saygın: There are plenty of good books in Turkish literature, about ottoman era. I think Nermin Mollaoğlu can give you a more satisfying answer if you ask this quesiton to her...
Luke: Can you tell me a bit about your writing process. Do you like to plan out your stories before hand or do you like writing and seeing where the story takes you?
Saygın: I am not a hardcore strategist when writing but I slightly plan the writing process. At that point, I always remember the words of Ursula L. Guin: “I do not ‘make’ realms, I am not an engineer. I am a discoverer who discovers the world (realm) with my characters.” Okay, I am not a such a brilliant soul like Ursula but I am trying to follow her advise, with some exceptions: I am following a basic plot and to motivate myself I do not begin writing before I decide the final scene of the novel and each chapter. Here is another important working secret from me: I do not like the process of writing. I like doing research, thinking and dreaming. For me, the rest of the ‘writing process’ is only a ‘responsibility’. I think that’s why I prefer to write by hand and in any place except my working room.
Luke: The central plot of the book is about The Cook rescuing his childhood sweetheart from the Harem. The damsel in distress is a story that has been told many times, particularly with regards to the Ottoman haram. How did you try to come up with a new angle on this story?
Saygın: Another confession for you: Yes, we the writers have been telling you the same stories for centuries. There’s nothing new.
When I was mentally working on the book, I only knew that it will be a novel about ‘an Ottoman cook who can cast magic by cooking’. That was all I had in my hand. For months, I’ve looked for a ‘true story’ which will go best with that idea. One night I’ve remembered the core rule of fiction: ‘Simple is the best.’ The most suitable story for that idea must be the most simple love story of the world. Yes I know that it had told thousands times before, but it was not a problem. Because I was sure about two things: One, I was sure about the power of my core idea, and second, a fiction is not about ‘what’ you are telling, it is about how you are telling it.
Luke: What are you reading at the moment?
Saygın: The tales of 1001 Nights… I have begun to feed myself for my next novel after Fire and Worth…