Saturday, February 06, 2010

"The Janissary Tree"

The Soup Master is one of the many ex-Janissarys in early 19th century Istanbul who play a role in the convoluted plot to overthrow the Sultan whom they had served. Jason Goodwin's book The Janissary Tree develops this fabulous plot with lots of historical detail and local color -- especially about food.

The Janissaries' evil machinations with foreign enemies are thwarted by the clever detective work and heroic actions of Yashim, the eunuch. Yashim was a talented cook, and made dinner for his friend Palweski, the Polish ambassador, every Thursday; when he thought about the mystery, his mind often turned to food analogies.

The Soup Master, similarly, said that there could be only one way to make tripe and onion soup. He refused to add coriander, for example. He said:
"You put coriander in the soup. ... Forget the people who don't like it. You add some beans. Some carrots. ... By the end, you can take out the tripe. Call it soup. Nobody will know any better. ... The Janissaries were like that. Like a recipe that has been quietly changed. In the city I made tripe and onion soup from tripe and onion. But in the barracks, ... they wanted me to believe in a kind of tripe and onion soup made of beans and bacon. In the end, I had to leave." (p. 49)
Once, like the original soup, the Janissaries had been pure and dedicated -- but like the adulterated soup, they had become a corrupt force in society. Interestingly, the Janissaries' official hierarchy included many kitchen titles -- "scullion, baker, pancake maker." Huge cauldrons were a symbol in many of their actions, and played a role in the mystery that Yashim solves. (p. 88)

The Soup Master's analogy helps Yashim to understand what's happening, as the Janissaries, who belong to a heretical Moslem sect, plot to resume the power they had lost a decade before, when the Sultan overthrew their corrupt reign. (Yes, a suspense novel with a conspiratorial sect and a eunuch, but not by Dan Brown -- much better than that!)

Much later, when several murders have been committed, Yashim fully realized that the murders were a prelude to a much bigger plot that he must foil -- he too used food as a metaphor to explain his insight. He explained to his friend Palewski: mezes are "little snacks before the main dish ... a way of calling people's attention to the excellence of the feast to come. ... Sometimes the best mezes are the simplest things. Fresh cucumbers..., sardines from Ortakoy, battered at most, and grilled.. Everything at its peak, in its season: timing, you could say, is everything."

In case Palewski (or the reader) didn't get the point, he continued, "Now take these murders... Taken together, yous see, they weren't an end in themselves. The meal doesn't end with the mezes, does it? The mezes announce the feast. And these killings, like mezes, depend on timing." (p. 171)

"Yashim, my friend," asked Palewski later on, "Are there any aspects of this mystery that don't involve cookery?" (p. 92)

This is a food-lover's mystery story. Cooking sets Yashim's mind free when he's burdened by worries of murder, arson, and insurrection. For one dinner, just after he was asked to help the authorities with the first mysterious event, he peeled and chopped onions, browned them with olive oil, added rice, and then:
He threw in a handful of currants and another of pine nuts, a lump of sugar, and a big pinch of salt. He took down a jar from the shelf and helped himself to a spoonful of oily tomato paste, which he mixed into a tea glass of water. He drained the glass into the rice, with a hiss and a plume of steam. He added a pinch of dried mint and ground some pepper into the pot and stirred the rice, then clamped on a lid and moved the pot to the back of the stove. (p. 16)
While the rice cooked, Yashim steamed mussels with dill, and cooked chicken with walnuts and pomegranate juice. On another occasion, he went to the market stall of George, the Greek vegetable vendor. Distracted by the terrible events of his detective work, he allowed George to guide him. George said, "Go, buy some fish. I will give you a sauce. You kebabs the fish, some Spanish onion, peppers. You puts on the sauce. You puts him in the fire. You eats. Go." (p. 108)

Yashim did as George told him. He threaded fish and onions onto skewers, smashed walnuts and garlic to spread on the fish, drizzled the skewers with oil, and put them over embers. He ate the kebabs with white bread, oil, sesame seeds, and a few olives, and made tea. Then he turned his attention back to the mystery.

At another point, preparing for one of Palewski's visits, Yashim purchased meat and pumpkin manti along with sour cream and borek. Manti are filled pastries -- I had to look them up in Binnur's online cookbook. For this meal, Yashim began by making stock from onions, leeks, and garlic, and added some pumpkin with cinnamon and honey. This time, he was interrupted by an intruder. And the boiling stock became a weapon, not a meal. (p. 254, 257) Much later, he did get to eat some manti, though they weren't very good. (p. 292)

You could almost use these descriptions as recipes. When I was in Turkey, I thought it was some of the best food I ever ate, and this book makes me crave the wonderful spicy flavors I remember. In addition, the book takes place among the still-most-famous tourist attractions of Istanbul, adding still more depth and enjoyment to reading it.


1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

I haven't read a culinary mystery in eons. When I think about it, I haven't enjoyed a good book in a long time although, I keep trying to get through The Ancient Inns of Greece and Rome for some time. (Firebaugh, 1922)

I too have a memorable fondness for the food of Turkey and from what I've heard, Istanbul has a rainbow of culinary offerings. Sadly, my Turkish friends returned home.

Perhaps you should mention this book to Janet from Dying for Chocolate. She's a mystery buff and those that involve food are her favorites. As a matter of fact, her guest blogger today is Katherine Hall Page. Thank you so much for sharing, Mae. It's evident you enjoyed this book. What a wonderful review.