Citizens – I am extremely excited by today’s recipe for several reasons, not the least of which is that it fits perfectly into our theme of the week for dishes incorporating rare perfume ingredients – and this one is especially worthy as it was reserved exclusively for the enjoyment of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and his guests!
This particular recipe dates back to the 17th century, and was re-discovered by the unique Istanbul restaurant known as Asitane, where the chefs serve only the most authentic and legendary royal recipes! Mukallele sembuse incorporates one of the rarest of perfume ingredients – genuine musk, added in a single precious drop or two into the nut filling of these delicious turnovers!
There were only two, slight problems – the recipe is top-secret and I had to put on my historical sleuthing cap to try and recreate it so you don’t have to fly to Istanbul to indulge – and this was no easy feat, let me tell you! Even after much painstaking research enabled me to (I think) recreate this dish, finding genuine musk was damned near impossible – but TFD laughs in the very face of pessimism and has at last persevered for both TFD Nation and ultimate culinary glory!
There was an exceedingly comprehensive perfume culture in the old Ottoman Empire, and this excerpted and exceptional article from theguideistanbul.com goes into great depth on the subject:
Fragrance held a prominent place in Ottoman culture, influenced not only by Islam’s emphasis on cleanliness but also the empire’s location at the crossroads of various trading routes, which allowed it to discover and adopt fragrances from around the world. Bihter Türkan Ergül, who is among the most recognized fragrance experts in the world and a creator of Ottoman-inspired scents, dedicated much of her career to researching scent culture in the Ottoman Empire. Using archives from the time, she has been able to learn more about the use of fragrances to cure ills and send subliminal messages, as well as preferences of the sultans and their families.
Scent culture in the Ottoman Empire
“During the medieval era the smell across Europe, especially in France, was unbearable due to the lack of sewage systems, the habit of throwing away corpses instead of burying them, and the belief that bathing was sinful as it would spoil baptismal water,” Ergül told The Guide Istanbul. “On the other hand, during the same time in the Ottoman Empire, beautiful scents were part of daily life.”
The fragrances used in the Ottoman Empire were not the perfumes we know today, but instead alcohol-free scented waters and oils made from natural essences. Later, these scented oils would be carried to Europe through wars and mixed with alcohol.
Fragrances were used not only to make one smell good. Often fragrances were used as remedies for illnesses, both physical and mental. Patients with afflictions such as strokes and convulsions were treated with eucalyptus, tea tree, and rose. During labor, women were made to smell rosewater and their bodies were rubbed with rose oil to ease delivery. While in Europe, mentally ill patients were associated with evil spirits and often crucified or burned, in the Ottoman Empire, especially under Sultan Bayezid II, such patients were treated with music, the sound of water, and scents such as mint, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.
Scents were also used to signal subliminal messages during everyday social interactions. A young girl would use redbud fragrances to signal she wanted to get married. When a family visited another family to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage, they would bring lily fragrance as a gift. A handkerchief with the fragrance of hyacinth was a subtle way of saying, “You hurt me,” or “You made me angry.”
Scents in the palace
Scents were important not only to everyday life, but also to life in the palace. Rituals often revolved around scents. “There would be 40 servants serving rosewater to guests and carrying out other scent rituals during Hatice Sultan’s coffee offering,” Ergül explained, pointing to an Ottoman gravure depicting the coffee ceremony. The ceremony would start with a server entering the room holding an incense burner.
Rosewater, amber, and musk were poured over wood and clover to make incense which would fill the room and ward off the evil eye. Rosewater would then be poured over each guests’ hands and a dessert with cinnamon or clove would be served to give a fresh smell to breath while chatting. Finally, coffee would be served.
Sultans would also use fragrances in state affairs. As oud (agarwood) was the symbol of political wit and justice, sultans and grand viziers would wear the scent during meetings at the Divan-ı Humayun (Imperial Council). Messengers and foreign delegates were often kept waiting days or weeks before audience with the sultan; if a foreign delegate was offered rosewater in the morning, he knew it would be a sign he would see the sultan that day—and also knew to wear it, to make sure he smelled good for the sultan.
As oud, amber, and musk were the fragrances of the Prophet Mohammed, these fragrances were used in the ink of correspondences with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina after they were conquered by Yavuz Sultan Selim.
The royals’ preferences
The sultans and their wives also had strong preferences for difference scents, and Ergül has spent much time researching their personal choices. Süleyman the Magnificent preferred amber, musk, and rose, the latter of which related to the Muslim belief that the Prophet Mohammed’s skin smelled of roses. Ergül spent nearly a decade researching Hürrem Sultan, the favorite and later chief consort and legal wife of Süleyman the Magnificent.
Through her studies, she found Hürrem preferred linden, jasmine, lavender, rose, and carnation fragrances. She would massage her feet with 70 grams of lavender oil so whenever she walked, it would smell like lavender in her wake. While having a bath, she would rinse her hair with mallow, which would leave a pleasant scent and also soften hair.
Other members of the sultan’s family had fragrance preferences recorded in the archives. Hürrem’s daughter-in-law Nur Banu Sultan chose daisy oil and lily for her hair, and rubbed rose and iris on her wrists.
So, as is now most obvious, fragrances and fragrant dishes were a necessity in the Turkish royal court, and this is a most unique recipe indeed, as it uses the most precious Asian Musk deer essence – the real deal, not the synthetic garbage used almost exclusively today! You might think the smell of natural musk is overwhelming, and it can be if not prepared correctly.
Natural musk is found in animals, in particular the male musk deer. They secrete a strong-smelling brown substance from a gland, that once collected and dried into a powder is soaked in ethanol (for months or years) which brings about an aroma that is a lot more pleasant! This musk carries a light, powdery, wooly, slightly sweaty scent and is one of the most expensive raw materials in the world. Properly prepared, many people cannot even detect the smell of musk, so let your own nose be your guide as to the right amounts!
You can purchase genuine musk collected from wild Mongolian musk deer from here – once you have it, let it steep in high-proof vodka or Everclear for at least 60 days and you’ll have the scent that was a favorite of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him), suitable not just for this recipe but also as a base for your own signature perfume of paradise! You’ll also need top-quality pomegranate molasses, mahlab spice and the milder but exquisite Ceylon cinnamon for my version of this recipe – grab them at the links.
Now, the recipe for mukallele sembuse is a trade secret of Asitane restaurant, but I am quite happy with this (dare I say improved?) version I have created and I have observed with great interest how this recipe is the royal ancestor of today’s sambusa recipe enjoyed in other parts of the world. For example, I’ve added a unique sweet and slightly tart Asian-spiced sauce that really brings this dish together!
It also combines a Swedish pancake wrapped around the nut-based, musk-enhanced filling and then further wrapped in a few sheets of filo dough, then fried until crispy. This gives you both crisp and soft textures in the wrappers and the nut and golden raisin filling flavored with almond milk and musk is divine, as is my sauce. I have every confidence you will LOVE this rarest and most precious of recipes, ! Try it with another favorite main dish of the Sultan – hünkar beğendi and know the true palatal glories of the palatial era of Turkish history!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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