The Ottomans loved flowers and incorporated them in life whenever and wherever possible. Floral patterns appeared everywhere from textiles to tiles, surrounding Ottoman life with depictions of tulips, roses, carnations, hyacinths, and violets. Women were named after flowers, and flowers were used widely in poetry. The incorporation of flowers into Ottoman cuisine was no exception.
By Aylİn Öney Tan
Flowers were a mainstay in the Ottoman kitchen, used most commonly in confections, jams, and sherberts. To the Ottomans, sweetness was best enjoyed complimented by the delicate scent of flowers. Sherberts were commonly flavored with flower syrups, and lokum, or Turkish delight, also took flower flavors such as rose. Zerde, a pudding made with rice, water, and honey, was flavored with saffron or rose.
The delicate aroma of flowers is often overpowered in honey- or molasses-based sweets, which is why they are most commonly used in sugar-based sweets, as refined white sugar is neutral. As such, the most delicious Ottoman confections used perfumed flowers to accentuate sweetmeats, jams, and candies. In the sixteenth-century Istanbul, violets, jasmine, jonquil, Judas tree flowers, citrus flowers, oleaster flowers, fruit blossoms, and most importantly, roses were used.
Zerde, the ultimate Ottoman sweet, was full of flower power. While it was a simple rice pudding, it was flavored by two of the most luxurious flowers: saffron and rose. Zerde got its name from the Persian word zerd, which translates to “golden,” as the pudding is colored bright yellow because of the saffron. Served in royal celebrations in Istanbul, the treat was given out after the conquest of Rhodes in 1522 and in 1539 it was served to rich and poor alike at the circumcision feast of Süleyman the Magnificent’s two sons.
Interestingly, zerde was not only served as a sweet but also over rice pilaf, blanketing the white buttery rice with a gilded sweet coating. The mildly sweet sauce contrasted with the savory pilaf, enhancing both the presentation, with the bright yellow color, and the taste, as saffron and rosewater are a match made in heaven. One can easily imagine how a fragrant pilaf and zerde combination would accompany roast lamb during a feast.
Such a scene was depicted in Surname-i Vehbi, the miniature drawings of the celebrations held for the circumcision of Sultan Ahmed’s sons in 1720 where huge trays of pilaf topped with zerde were lined along several spit-roasted sheep waiting to be served to the Janissary soldiers. This era was dubbed the Tulip Era, which is considered the most extravagant period in the Ottoman times when indulgence in lavishness and luxury was at its peak, and when the elite developed an immense fondness for tulips.
Rose is surely the queen of flowers, but it had a special place in Ottoman cuisine, especially in the court kitchen. Topkapı Palace had its own rose gardens and produced its own rose water as well as other rose-based products.
Rose was also used for its curative properties, most notably to enhance memory, relieve anxiety, and act as an antidepressant. Ottoman medicine had its roots in the discoveries of Greek physician and philosopher Galen and Avicenna, an Islamic physician known in Turkey as İbn-i Sina. It was based on humoralism, a dietary concept regulating consumption according to food properties matching body type, mood, health condition, and season. One of the most important features of Ottoman cuisine was this direct link between diet and health, not only with the foods themselves, but also with the aromas and fragrances.
The palace kitchen had to cater accordingly, and rose played a critical role. The flower was considered to have cold properties, giving an instant sense of well-being, cooling people who have a hot temperament, calming rapid heart beats, and increasing the brain’s cognitive power. Rosewater was also used in Ottoman mental hospitals for those experiencing tantrums. The rose fragrance is closely associated with Islam, as rose oil was dropped on the pages of the Quran to enhance memorization.
While the rose itself has a short lifespan, the delicate flower’s legacy lives on from Ottoman times to today in Turkish cuisine.
Make it at home: zerde recipe
By İbrahim Canpulat owner of Gülevin Safranbolu
- Two Turkish coffee cups of rice
- 10 cups water
- Three tablespoons arrowroot or rice starch
- 250 grams sugar
- A generous pinch of saffron (about a gram)
- Half a cup rosewater
- Pine nuts and dried black currants to garnish
- Soak rice in enough water to cover for two hours.
- Meanwhile, dissolve a generous pinch of saffron in half a cup of rosewater.
- Drain and wash the rice; put in a pan with 10 cups of water and cook for 20 minutes until the rice grains are tender but not mushy.
- Add 250 grams of sugar, stir, and let it cook for a further five minutes. If you put sugar in beforehand it will toughen the rice.
- Add the saffron and rosewater mixture.
- Dissolve three tablespoons of arrowroot or rice starch in half a cup of water and slowly stir in the pudding.
- Bring to a simmer for a minute or so and remove it from the heat when it is slightly thickened and translucent.
- Divide into individual serving cups.
- Garnish with pine nuts and dried black currants. Barberries soaked in rosewater or slivered almonds can also be used as a garnish.