Jason Goodwin tells us how his Ottoman investigator, Yashim, came to develop his culinary skills
Regular readers of Saucy Dressings will know that one of my greatest pleasures is curling up in front of a crackling fire with a good, old-fashioned detective book.
Of course I love many but those that combine the puzzle element with a culinary aspect score a double whammy for me and Jason Goodwin’s series featuring the Ottoman hero, Yashim, is my favourite. The author, Jason Goodwin, certainly knows his history. He studied Byzantine history at Cambridge and went on to write Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissary Tree, the first book in his detective series, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and the series has been translated into more than 40 languages.
He also knows his smells and his cooking. Some of the most evocative passages in the books are those describing his hero chopping, stuffing and stewing thoughtfully and tranquilly. Small wonder then that the books inspired the Saucy Dressings’ Chief Taster and I to travel to Istanbul and to visit the palaces, markets and mosques which form the colourful backdrop to the novels.
Yashim Cooks Istanbul, a just-published cookery book featuring recipes for Yashim’s creations, is a natural development. This feast of a book bulges with rich visual, verbal, and flavourful treats (go here for more on Yashim Cooks Istanbul). Lots of questions have flashed up in my mind as I’ve followed Yashim through the back streets of Istanbul, and Jason through the creation of his recipe book so I was delighted when Jason agreed to be Saucy Dressing’s guest interviewee for this month and satisfy fully my curiosity.
SD: How did you come to choose Istanbul as the backdrop to your Yashim
JG: At school we did Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium. He used Byzantium as a metaphor for beauty and control, and I became fascinated by the image of the city of Istanbul. It seemed to stand at the centre of the world, to be a natural capital of empires. So later, when the Wall came down and all the countries of eastern Europe were opened up, we decided to walk across Europe, from the coast of Poland to – well, Istanbul was the obvious destination. For one thing, it looked like a downhill run on the map. It was a kind of pilgrimage. I went with my girlfriend, Kate: it was a sort of weird courtship.
Istanbul was of course smaller then, in 1990. Perhaps it was more intimate, more approachable? Everything was fresh to me – Ottoman architecture, the mosaics of Aya Sofia, the old Galata Bridge, with the restaurants hanging underneath. I had a horrible time in a steam bath, where everyone attacked me for bakshish, and a wonderful time in the Grand Bazaar. Kate is my wife, and she still wears a beautiful faded velvet jacket that might have belonged to an Ottoman concubine.
“she still wears a beautiful faded velvet jacket that might have belonged to an Ottoman concubine.”
I stood beneath the dome of Aya Sofia like those ambassadors of old who said: ‘We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth.’ Outside, old men waved us to share their café chairs. The bread was dazzlingly fresh, the mackerel came off the boats, and in the Grand Bazaar a concoction of mint and chicken blew away months of dreary, Soviet-style meals. Walking across Europe was like a fairy-tale adventure; Topkapi was a fairytale palace; and the streets of Istanbul seemed tinged with gold. Of course I fell in love. It was a city where you could bump your shins on history, eat well, take a ferry, ride a tram, and travel from one civilisation to another in ten steps.
The hike inspired me to study Ottoman history, and to write Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.
Later, when I decided to write fiction, there was no question that it would be set in Ottoman Istanbul. You have to write about something you know, and it was the only thing I knew.
I wanted to make that whole Ottoman world more familiar to modern readers. It can seem very exotic and far away, but it was also quite ordinary – people like us laughed, cried, loved, died there. I wanted to show that. I want to show that the past doesn’t have to be put in a glass box.
“The bread was dazzlingly fresh, the mackerel came off the boats, and in the Grand Bazaar a concoction of mint and chicken blew away months of dreary, Soviet-style meals.”
SD: How did you come to conceive of Yashim as a character?
JG: I needed someone who could pass between all the different, slightly enclosed groups who lived in Ottoman Istanbul, between people of different faiths and language, like the Greeks and Turks – but also speak to men and women. That made me take the fateful decision: Yashim would have to be a eunuch. Which of course wasn’t unusual in old Istanbul – eunuchs were valued as go-betweens, from the palace to the city, and between the male and female quarters of the house. Later on, I realized that it was a better decision than I’d first thought, because it made for a much more interesting character, a hero in touch with his feminine side, not a big, boring macho man. He can never have children, which is a tragedy for him, but he has friends, and he values duty and loyalty.
The downside was pointed out to me by someone I met in California. ‘Great books, great characters – and,’ he added, ‘you’ve done something no other thriller writer has ever done before.’
And what was that? I asked eagerly.
‘You’ve made the books Hollywood-proof.’ He gave me a look. ‘No A-lister is going to want to play the eunuch.’
At the time I just laughed. Yashim is to all intents and purposes like any man, no squeaky voice, or anything. He can even have sex. But time seems to have proved my friend right.
“‘No A-lister is going to want to play the eunuch.’”
SD: In which book did Yashim first start cooking and why did you decide
to develop this interest?
JG: Right there, at the beginning of The Janissary Tree, he’s expecting a visit from his friend the Polish Ambassador and he cooks him fesenjan, a Persian-inspired dish, in this case with chicken and walnuts. It just set the tone properly, Yashim’s generosity, his competence. I did think he might cook a bit instead of having sex: but in the end I realised he can do both. He certainly falls in love.
The cooking was a sort of lucky break – an ideal way to take readers into the city, to have them smell and taste it. And when Yashim collects his ingredients together in the market, and goes home to cook, it changes the pace of the story. It relaxes. You can’t rack up the tension all the time, you need breathing spaces. Cooking provides that for him.
“I did think he might cook a bit instead of having sex.”
SD: What are the various methods you use to research food and cooking of
JG: Much as I love history, I refuse to become obsessed with the fetish of ‘culinary authenticity’. You know the sort of thing, like that search for the ‘real’ cassoulet – is it from Carcassonne or Castelnaudry? The answer is both, and neither – pork and beans is pork and beans all over, and everyone gives it their own, local, twist. To put it another way, there’s a story about the Empress Eugenie visiting Sultan Abdulaziz in 1869, in Istanbul. The Empress was so taken with a concoction of aubergine puree and lamb that she asked for permission to send her own chef to the kitchens to study the recipe. The request was graciously granted by their host, and the French imperial chef duly set off for the kitchen with his scales and notebook. In five minutes the Sultan’s cook slung him out, roaring, ‘An imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes, and his nose!’
So the research is out of books, in restaurants, from talking, over the years, with friends in Istanbul. You start out with a recipe, like the French chef, but over time you find out how to get comfortable with it yourself, how to add a little, or subtract, and adapt it to your liking.
I love writing the cooking scenes in the Yashim books, because it’s physical, and very descriptive, and active all at the same time.
“I refuse to become obsessed with the fetish of ‘culinary authenticity’”
SD: What is the most surprising food- related piece of information you’ve discovered whilst researching?
JG: I suppose I always knew in the back of my mind that tomatoes were a foreign import – they came from South America, of course, and made their way very slowly into Mediterranean cooking. So slowly, in fact, that Ottoman cooks were pretty suspicious of tomatoes, even in Yashim’s day in the 19th century. Imagine – the Mediterranean, the Italians, the Turks, the Greeks, managing without tomatoes now! Inconceivable. So in An Evil Eye I put in an argument about the merits and dangers tomatoes between some Greeks fishermen cooking soup on the beach.
SD: Why did you decide to produce a cookbook?
JG: I suppose I grew up with the form – my mother, Jocasta Innes, wrote fabulous cookbooks to keep the wolf from our door. The first was The Pauper’s Cookbook, which seems to have saved some marriages back in the 1970s. Another was The Country Kitchen, her own favourite, about pickling and salting and making parsnip wine.
She was a great cook, and her mother, too – Eileen did the best sweet and sour pork, from years of living in China. We grew up knowing about food, and expecting to eat well.
It was a great revelation of my life, crossing the border into Edirne after walking for months in Poland and Romania, and eating Arnavut ciğeri in the bazaar. Turkey is just a food heaven.
So I made Yashim a good cook, and readers wrote to me, asking for more cooking, even complete recipes. I think they prefer the cooking to the detection, in fact. So it was readers who kept suggesting a cookbook. I mentioned the idea to my publishers, Faber, and they were rather snooty about it – you’re not on telly, they said. Ah – a challenge! Not to go on TV, but to write a really good cookbook, and to do it my way, with lots of illustrations to go with the recipes, and snippets from the novels, and pictures that would illustrate that Ottoman world I’d tried to recreate in print. So that is just what we’ve done.
It is all good Mediterranean, Ottoman cooking, with my home twist here and there. Stuff I like. Easy and delicious, as one reviewer said. And there’s lots of cultural tidbits that come with a recipe, and I like that.
“My mother, Jocasta Innes, wrote fabulous cookbooks to keep the wolf from our door.”
SD: What sort of experience has that been?
JG: Well, had I known how hard it would be…! You can’t afford to go even slightly wrong in a recipe. In a history you can make a slip with the dates, and you are generally forgiven, and in a novel you can make it up. But if you get a quantity wrong, or miss out a step in the recipe – well, you have ruined someone’s important dinner and they will NEVER forgive you. Quite a responsibility.
In the end I turned to the people who had encouraged me to write the cookbook in the first place – my readers. I put an appeal out on the blog, asking for volunteers – you joined in! So many people pitched in to test a recipe, from all over the world, it was utterly fascinating. The novels have appeared in forty languages, so they were testing Yashim’s recipes in Pakistan and Albania, Alabama and Australia. Bless them. It was brilliant, and I learned so much from everyone’s comments and suggestions.
One of my readers was Sheilah Kaufman, a cookery book editor who had recently collaborated on a cookbook with the wife of the Turkish ambassador to Washington. She volunteered to edit the manuscript.
And then there was the whole business of designing the book, choosing pictures, taking the photographs. My son Isaac is a book designer and we did it together. So it has been a wonderful experience, all round. It came out far, far better than I could have possibly wished for, and the reviews have been fantastic. I might have to stick with cookbooks for a while!
Below Jason gives his recipe for guinea fowl with pepper sauce (faraona con la peverada), inspired by The Bellini Card which is partly set in Venice, and suggests serving it with polenta.
Recipe for guinea fowl with pepper sauce
• 3 cloves of garlic
• parsley and rosemary
• 3 onions
• salt and pepper
• 2 guinea fowls
• olive oil
• 120ml/½ cup white wine (or dry vermouth)
Ingredients for the peverada sauce
• 75g/3 oz salami “ideally a pungent soppressa from the Veneto”
• 75g/3 oz chicken livers
• 3 cloves of garlic
• sprig of parsley
• 2 tsp lemon zest
• 50g/2 oz breadcrumbs
• olive oil
• juice of a lemon
• white wine
• salt and pepper
1. Set the oven to 180°C. Make the stuffing by finely chopping the garlic and herbs, then chopping with the onions. Divide it between the two birds, rub them outside with oil and salt, splash with a glassful of wine, and put them in the oven for 25 minutes, reast-down, before turning them the right way up for a further 20 minutes.
2. To make the peverarda sauce, slice the salami, then stack it and slice it again at right angles, to reduce it to dice. Keep chopping. Chop the liver fine, with the garlic and the parsley. Mix them all in a bowl with the breadcrumbs and the lemon zest.
3. Oil the base of a frying pan and gently fry the mixture, until the liver is cooked. Add the lemon juice and some white wine, to make the sauce a little sloppy. Check for seasoning and serve with the roast fowls and slices of polenta.