Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Aromas and Tastes in Shafak's Istanbul

"Jahan trod behind Balaban. At each step the street smells intensified -- traces of jasmine mingling with the tang of the sea and the whiffs of food, briny and garlicky. Tamers learned a lot from their animals and there was one thing Chota [the elephant] had hammered into him: how to sniff better. So he paid more attention to these scents in the breeze, and after a while he caught a hint of perfumed oils from a house nearby." (The Architect's Apprentice, p. 211)
"Balaban's Gypsies, recently back from Thrace, would soon be heading southwards. Jahan decided to visit them before they left. They welcomed him like a long-lost brother. Tamarind sherbets were served, mouth-watering aromas surrounded them -- sour-grape molasses, goat's cheese, spinach pide, roasted meat." (p. 254)
The world of Jahan, title character in Elif Shafek's novel The Architect's Apprentice, was full of aromas and smells both pleasant and unpleasant. On his arrival with Chota the elephant at the Sultan's palace, he smelled a "putrid smell," and caught sight of "three gibbets ... Mounted on each was a severed head, silently rotting away...." Other aromas of death appear throughout the novel, along with more pleasant ones.

After observing the evidence of executions outside the gates of his new home, Jahan entered the area of the palace where he and his elephant were to live. A more experienced trainer, seeing the elephant's poor condition after his sea voyage, applied "some foul-smelling ointment to Chota's lumps, and wrapped his trunk with burlap full of crushed leaves and a fragrant resin that Jahan later on learned was called myrrh." (p. 29-31)

Aromas seemed to come up especially frequently when Jahan visited his Gypsy friends and their leader Balaban (as in the quotes above). At the end of the book one of the unexplained parts of his life becomes clear to him when he follows a special odor and links it to two of the characters that he had trusted, but shouldn't have -- but no details or I'd spoil it for you. And you should read it!

Istanbul as we saw it from a ferry boat during our trip in 2006.
Throughout the novel, foods often reveal the privileges of the palace where Jahan lived with the other animal tamers, and where he worked with the other apprentices of Sinan, the great architect. Food descriptions also indicate the privations during a siege when the elephant was part of the military effort, and illustrate Jahan's experiences in the harem and in brothels, and provide clues to many other circumstances. 

So many examples -- here are just a few:
"Along with her smile [Mihrimah] brought treats for the elephant -- not pears and apples but royal delicacies: figs with clotted cream and violet sherbet, marzipan topped with rose-petal jam or honeyed chestnuts, the last of which, Jahan knew, cost at least four aspers an okka." (p. 43)
"... he entered Mihrimah's mansion on the shores of the Bosphorus... Ordering dish after dish, she urged him to taste everything. Stewed mutton, stuffed vine leaves, prunes in syrup, sugared almonds of various colours. There was something on a tiny plate Jahan had never had before -- caviar." (p. 203)
"The festivities [for the circumcision of two princes] had been going on for days... Confectioners paraded with sugar-sculptures of man-eating sea creatures and birds with feathers of every colour. Up and down the streets, giant frames of flowers were displayed. So many sheep were butchered that the creek behind the slaughterhouses ran crimson. Pageboys scurried about, humping trays of rice dripping with fat from sheep's tails. those who'd had their bellies filled and quenched their thirst with sherbet were treated to zerde [rice sweetened with saffron and honey]. For once, the poor and the rich tucked into the same dishes." (p. 107-108)
"Stubborn and staunch, the count and his soldiers defended their citadel [at Szigetvar]. Days turned into weeks.... For food they had roasted millet, nuts, dried meat and a piece of hard mare's-milk cheese each. The flocks of sheep and goats that they had brought from Istanbul were waiting, ready to be slaughtered. How the enemy withstood the hunger and their diminishing numbers, Jahan could not say." (p. 232)
Perhaps the most dramatic of these descriptions is the one opportunity that the humble Jahan has to actually partake of a banquet given by the Sultan himself:
"Meanwhile the rest of the guests, including Jahan, were led into smaller rooms.... They were served wheat soup with a hunk of dark bread, which was so filling Jahan could have stopped eating there and then. But as soon as the crocks were taken away they were brought vine leaves  stuffed with meat, rice with pine nuts, chicken kebab, chicken with mushrooms, buttered lamb, fried pigeons, roasted partridges, lamb's feet, goose stuffed with apples, brined anchovies, a huge red fish from icy waters up north, borek with shredded meat, egg with onions. They were served hoshaf in bowls and lemonade in pitchers. His appetite now piqued by the delicious smells, Jahan tasted every dish... Then came the desserts: almond baklava, pear baked with ambergris, cherry pudding, ice-crushed sweetened wild strawberries and heaps of honeyed figs." (p. 280)
Oh how I enjoyed this delightful book! 


Kitchen Riffs said...

You read really interesting stuff. This sounds delightful, and I've never heard of it. Thanks for the intro!

Tina said...

I just love a book with food mentioned throughout. This is true traveling through literature for me, but lucky you, you have actually been to. Istanbul. That's a good photo, by the any, I love the silloutte of the buildings.

Beth F said...

This is a new-to-me book. Sounds good (and yummy!)

Deb in Hawaii said...

It sounds like an interesting and inspiring book. ;-)

Claudia said...

Sounds like an interesting read. I'm going to look for it.

Esme said...

One can only imagine all the scents of Istanbul. You were lucky to have visited.

The Candid Cover: YA Book Blogger said...

Those passages have me drooling! I love it when an author can convey the sense of smell so easily. This character has definitely got a heightened sense of smell. Thank you so much for sharing! :)

Vicki said...

I haven't seen this book before. I think I'll look for it.

Jackie Mc Guinness said...

we were in Istanbul in 2010 and loved it, saw a lot of fog too. Food was great.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

These descriptions are so vibrant, I can almost smell and taste them on the screen.

Melynda Brown said...

It is always interesting to learn of food and eating customs from other lands.