by Saygin Ersin (2016); English translation 2018
I suspect you’re as bored as I am with our current restrictions and news which never seems to improve. We need to ESCAPE, if only for a few hours, to another place and time. I can help you with that. We’re going to the Ottoman Empire of earlier centuries to follow a young man in his quest for love and the ability to create exquisite culinary delights beyond our poor imaginations: to become the Pasha of Cuisine.
WHAT is a “Pasha of Cuisine,” you ask? It involves a rare natural gift with which one must be born, and centuries may pass between one Pasha and the next.
The Pasha’s influence was so pervasive that it ushered in “a new golden age of taste,” so he was welcomed with great enthusiasm by those around him.
While a Pasha was born with a great gift which became obvious early in his life, he needed a great deal of training in various subjects to learn how to control and maximize his gift. We readers tag along on his travels and learn as he does.
WHO is this Pasha? We know him throughout the book only as “the cook,” with his real name revealed only at the end. (No, I’m not telling you what it is.) We know a great deal about him, though. By the age of 5, he had displayed to those who could recognize it an astonishingly discerning palate even for someone much older. When the reigning Sultan massacred all his close male relatives who could possibly challenge his throne, the cook was the sole survivor, saved, then hidden. He did return to the Palace in his 20s, recognized only by those who had saved him. There he cooked in various kitchens, one among thousands of support staff for the royalty and government personnel.
WHY did the cook return to the Palace? During his “exile” from the Palace, the cook worked in various kitchens and was sent to train in his profession with a range of experts.
His first years of training occurred in the kitchens of the House of Pleasure. Yes, it was just what it sounds like. There he learned that there are four main tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, and sour. FLAVORS, however, have six layers. “[E]very taste is related to a memory or an emotion. Flavors are part of a person’s past, and are the translation of emotion into another language….[W]hile taste may start in the mouth, it ends in the mind.” [p. 86] He also learned that food could potentially have unpredictable effects on its consumers. A cook must be careful with such power.
The House of Pleasure was also where he met the love of his life, Kamer, at age 11. She was brought in to sing and dance for patrons, but stubbornly refused to cooperate. She was locked in a dark room with no food allowed until she would cooperate, but the cook was so struck by her, he found a way to help her. He eventually won her heart. They found ways to solidify their love in those early years, and he eventually worked his way into the Palace kitchens where she had been consigned to the harem. They managed to re-connect despite obstacles.
To illustrate the concept of tastes connecting to emotions, the cook had been eating an apple when he first saw Kamer. He forever thought of her afterward as being “apple scented.” Apples later played a significant part in their relationship.
Another part of his training took place with the el-Haki twin brothers. From the astronomer brother, the cook learned about the stars, the meaning of the celestial houses they passed through, and how to take that information into account when creating his cuisine.
Even more fascinating were the teachings of the doctor brother. He described the heart as a “city [that] has three allies and three enemies. Its allies are relief, friendship, and hope, while its enemies are spite, fear, and sorrow.” [p. 156]
He taught the cook that the body is made up of the four elements—air, water, fire, and earth—and that good health demands harmony and balance between them. He named the location of each element in the body, and noted that any imbalance between them “leads to deterioration of health.”
Disease enters the body not only through “what we eat, but what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we touch, and even what we experience can cause us to become unwell.” Diet is the most natural treatment for disease, followed by medicine and surgery if needed. [p. 156]
He described the nature of each element: warm, cold, moist, dry. Each food has its own properties which should be considered in preparation.
Another part of the cook’s training took place with the Lady of Essences. That training built upon what he learned from the el-Haki doctor. He learned about innumerable spices and scents, their properties and uses. She took him on a buying voyage that opened his eyes to new scents and to ways to conduct the business of procurement.
She also taught the cook about the correct way to regard destiny. It
The Lady of Essences finally realized that the cook had to heal his soul in order to become the Pasha of Cuisine. “If you go to Alexandria, if you can learn the greatest secret of your art—you can begin to hold sway over flavors, and through them you can learn to control emotions and people. Then you will have truly mastered your powers, the greatest on earth.” [p. 231]
The cook went to see the Master Librarian in Alexandria, who asked what his question was. The cook, however, was bewildered and couldn’t discern what was expected of him. If he left without asking the right question of the Master, his chance of becoming the Pasha of Cuisine was gone forever. He wandered for some time, trying to think of the right question.
Just as he was about to board a ship to leave Alexandria, he realized that “[r]egardless of whether he had tasted it himself, every taste and every smell on earth, and every mixture therein, had a meaningful equivalent in his mind. Those…words existed as a mysterious language that described flavors.” [p.247] He knew what to ask…and did.
I will leave the final outcome for readers to discover.
I always like to give you a bit of background information about the author, but there’s very little available on Saygin Ersin. He’s a former Turkish journalist living in Izmir, Turkey. He has written two other novels that seem unrelated to this book, which is the only one translated into English. I did find one interview online that sheds quite a lot of light on how he researched and wrote the book—it’s well worth reading: https://bosphorusreview.com/interview-saygin-ersin
The Pasha of Cuisine is one of those precious rare books that we sometimes encounter by accident, that we keep to re-read again and again. I found it only because I saw the title somewhere, and it got caught in my mind. I had NO IDEA of the treat that was in store for me, but it changed forever the way I think about food.
We are bombarded daily by TV ads, by signs everywhere we go, of every sort of “fast food” and its convenience in feeding ourselves and our families. This book shows us a completely different way to think about and create cuisine. We are shown the power of the palate if we just learn how to use it. We are also shown how every one of our senses is involved with cuisine as we create and consume it. I also realized how oblivious most of us are to that fact, and how much of life we miss by that oblivion.
The Pasha of Cuisine reminded me of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, but goes deeper into the ideas of properties and powers of food. It is also influenced by a much older tradition of the Ottoman and Islamic cultures, especially in the use of spices which were much more accessible in that area. Both books couple food and love with a delightful dash of myth and magical realism.
I will donate a copy of The Pasha of Cuisine to the Grover Beach Community Library.