Mediterranean Food

The Jews of Turkey and Greece ate foods inspired by Ottoman cuisine.

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Sephardic Cooking, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.


At the time that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which existed from the late 13th century to its decline in 1924, when Kemal Ataturk, the designer of modern Turkey, abolished the Ottoman caliphate. Sultan Beyazit II, who reigned from 1482‑1512, responding to the expulsion with compassion but also a degree of opportunism, rescued the Jews from the Inquisition, causing the famous 16th‑century historian Rabbi Eliyahu Capsali to relate: “So the king of Turkey heard of all the evil that the Spanish king had brought upon the Jews and heard that they were seeking a refuge and resting place. He took pity on them, and wrote letters and sent emissaries to proclaim throughout his kingdom that none of his city rulers may be wicked enough to refuse entry to the Jews or expel them.”

After that edict, Turkey, the Middle East, and the Balkans opened up their borders. Tens of thousands of expelled Jews came to Turkey. (Were they the boat people of the 15th century?) Istanbul, Salonika, Greece, and Izmir (formerly Smyrna) became important centers of the Sephardim.

The Iberian Jews of Spain and Portugal were highly educated in the professions, in international trade, finance, and medicine, and Sultan Beyazit, knowing this full well, welcomed this transfusion of human talent into Turkey. The Jews brought the first printing press to the Ottoman Empire, for example, and established a printing industry in 1494, two years after the expulsion.

They were not alone in their religion. They found, upon arrival in Turkey, Jews who were long‑time inhabitants of the region and known as Romaniates, pre‑Ottoman Empire Jews who were named thus through their early Roman connections. These Romaniates were ultimately, after some years, absorbed by the Sephardim.

The Jews lived in their own areas, maintained their own organizations, and created their own cuisine. Jewish men went forth into the cities to work, while the women for the most part remained at home. A lady from Izmir explained the Jewish cooking by saying that “The Turks borrowed from us and we from them.” Cooking rules and recipes were passed down from mother to daughter and resulted in a continuity of culinary ideas throughout the centuries and to the present.

There were two components that combined to develop Sephardic cooking in Turkey—Spanish heritage and Turkish culture. This was a gradual osmosis and not a rapid modification of existing cooking styles. The availability of fresh produce is an important factor in the creation of a cuisine and, in this case, new ideas were developed around ingredients that were available and inexpensive, like the eggplant.

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Copeland Marks has written numerous cookbooks, including The Great Book of Couscous and The Exotic Kitchens of Peru.