An Ottoman detective in the kitchen: Jason Goodwin turns from crime to cookery
In a series of five novels, Yashim the Ottoman detective has titillated readers with cases that careen through Ottoman high society and low life in a trail of spice, glitter, steel, and blood. Now, author Jason Goodwin is putting his character’s knife to another use: cooking.

By Joshua Bruce Allen

From Flaubert to Hemingway, Twain to Christie, the writers who have visited and written about Istanbul bear witness to its unending allure. It was the Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium” that first whispered an idea of Istanbul to the young Jason Goodwin. But it was several decades before he dreamed up Yashim, a detective with one peculiarity: he is a eunuch. As women are out of bounds, Yashim spends much of his spare time in the kitchen, an activity that inspired Goodwin’s latest creation: Yashim Cooks Istanbul, a historical-mystery cookbook filled with enticing recipes from Yashim’s 19th-century adventures.

“How do you conjure up Istanbul for people who’ve never been there? Food is a good way of evoking place. You get some sumac, some peppers, some garlic, and readers feel like they’re in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Goodwin explains during a recent visit to Istanbul. “And when Yashim is cooking, he can do some thinking, but without just sitting there.”

Jason Goodwin

From non-fiction to novel ideas

The writer’s first book on Istanbul was On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul, documenting his six-month journey from Poland to Turkey in the early 1990s. “In the first half of the walk going down to Hungary, you felt [the environment] was about places the Russians and the Germans had always contested. But when you got to Hungary, and then Transylvania, Romania, and Bulgaria, there was another influence … You knew you’d come into the orbit of something else, and the story there was between the Austrians and the Ottomans. Then the question is, who are the Ottomans? They came, had such an influence, and then just disappeared.”

Strangely, the Soviet influence on Eastern Europe may have helped to preserve the Ottoman legacy beyond its normal sell-by date, as Goodwin explains. “The whole of Eastern Europe had been pickled for the past 45 years by Communism. Nothing had really changed, so we were walking through Medieval landscapes in places like Transylvania,” he said. “When we were in Romania, we went into a shop for a map. They said, ‘Yes, we have a map of Romania.’ So we bought this map, which was quite thin, but when we opened it there was just an orange shape with ‘Romania’ written on it. The rest was completely empty.”

Stepping out of that frozen zone into the dynamism of Istanbul was thrilling, as Goodwin recalls. “We spent a few days in Istanbul and thought, ‘This is just amazing. We have to come back and live here.’ But we didn’t. That’s what happens – life catches up with you.” Though settled in Dorset with his wife and four children, a piece of Goodwin’s soul undoubtedly stayed in Istanbul, although it also time-traveled to meet Yashim in the 1830s. 

The sensual realism of Yashim’s world came from years of research, relying mainly on accounts from 19th-century travelers such as Edmondo de Amicis. In fact Amicis worked in the same way, as Goodwin describes: “He came for a week and then wrote this huge book called Constantinople. It must have been a very busy week, as he seems to have gone everywhere and seen every possible permutation of Ottoman life. He has a terrific description of the Galata Bridge and the people coming past, which goes on for pages. It took him three years to write, so obviously he researched in libraries and wrote this very immediate account.” Another of Goodwin’s favorites is nonsense poet Edward Lear, whose travel diaries are a neglected resource on Southeastern Europe and the Levant.

What Jason Goodwin would ask ancient Istanbul celebrities

  • I’d ask Süleyman the Magnificent why it all went wrong. He was a poet, so how did he end up being a gloomy murderer?
  • I’d ask Theodora, who was an exotic dancer, to tell me about her early life and how she met Emperor Justinian I. 
  • I’d like to have dinner with Evliya Çelebi, the traveler. I’d ask him just to tell me what happened again. It would be a long story, but quite funny.

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