I’ve been reading Jason Goodwin’s quartet of novels, mysteries set in mid-19th century Istanbul. The protagonist, the sleuth, is a fixture at the Sultan’s court, but he lives in the city. He’s suave, smart, a polyglot, and a eunuch. He’s also a fine cook and, every so often, if only to break the tension of his life and the pell-mell narration of his story, Goodwin lets Yashim go to the market, shop for necessities, and prepare a feast for himself. Goodwin has also written a book about traipsing through India and China in search of tea (couldn’t have been all that hard to find, could it?), so one assumes that his idea of how Yashim would cook in a 19th century flat will be accurate enough.
During one such episode, Yashim shops in the Spice Bazaar (officially, the Egyptian Bazaar) which is right on the waterfront next to the Galata Bridge which crosses from the Stanbul side to the Pera side. The former was, for want of a better term, the Ottoman side, or the Turkish side. Topkapi, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque all live here. On the Pera hills, foreign embassies, foreign businesses, hotels for foreigners all helped create a kind of second city, perhaps the kind of city Ataturk had in mind when he led the Westernization process after World War I.
Yashim marvels at the chaos of color, aroma, taste, vendors’ cries that mark the bazaar. He understands that some spices have, actually or legendarily, curative properties, but he can’t shake the notion that people traveled for years at a time back and forth across the Asian steppes, and mountains, and deserts to fetch minerals that provided a little color to a too-plain veal dish. Or added a flavor that allowed us to coin the word ‘piquant.’ If, Yashim imagines, if the Bazaar suddenly exploded, and all those spices evaporated, menus would change but no one would really be the worse off. Saffron may be a beautiful color, but it is not life-giving or life-restoring.
UCLA’s Louise M. Darling’s Biomedical Library believes otherwise. Here are some of the things that spices are said to affect or cure:
Cinnamon: antiseptic, anti-diarrhea
Clove: Topical anesthetic
Ginger: For colds
Nutmeg: for hallucinations
Garlic: Anti-cancer; anti-hypertension
Basil: Kidney disease.
Yashim does his shopping where the Egyptian Bazaar has prospered since 1597. Further east, in the wilds of Cappadocia, I have visited caravanserai, built 300 years earlier than the Bazaar. These medieval motels were laid out along the Silk Road every 15-30 miles or so—the distance a camel could expect to travel in a day. The Sultan paid for the construction and maintenance, and he did so by levying a tax on those who profited most from the trade. A case of, “No, you didn’t build that, Mr. One Percent.” “Oh, yes I did.”
I stand on the high stone threshold where the great gate swivels in, and I can see the long aisle with—oh, say—150 shops visible. The press of people—tourists, daily shoppers, deliverymen, shopkeepers, inspectors, competitors—seem enchanted by the intensities of color, aroma, shade, piquancy, texture, side-by-side distinctions, flavors at the front edge of the tongue, flavors stretching for remote regions of the tongue, historical memory of journeys east and south—and that’s why there are silk shops next to the Turkish Delight stands—the inventiveness of stuffing figs with walnuts or cheese with pistachios or dates with whatever that was, the pastels that so wonderfully distinguish fruits when they have been dried and partly jellied—mangoes, apricots, apples, pears.
The Egyptian Bazaar shares a plot overlooking the Bosporus with the New Mosque, whose construction also began in 1597. While not the most famous or even the most lovely of Istanbul’s mosques, it certainly has created its own spice-like atmosphere. Tile, mostly blue and green and white, stretches up the walls towards the painted arches and domes. There is no angle from which you can see the whole, no angle that fails to produce new interest even though the fecundity of the design is tied to repetition, not endless inventiveness.
Enough. You should look instead at the interspersed pictures below: La vie en beaucoup de couleurs.