When you think of ottoman cuisine, images of exotic herbs, roaring fires and boiling pots might come to mind. And who could forget rows and rows of Lokum and Baklava being prepared. While the popularity of many staples of ottoman cuisine remain as popular today as they did 300 years ago (you only have to walk twenty metres down Istiklal to see the demand for a sweet slice of baklava hadn't changed much), some treasures enjoyed by the Sultans have been almost forgotten to time. Ottoman Sherbet, from the Arabic sharba, meaning “a drink” is one such example. Once as popular in Turkey and parts of the middle east such as Iran and Afghanistan as cola is today, this sweet drink, prepared using fruit and flower petals, has a long and rich history. Like many Ottoman dishes, Sherbet appears in quite a few anecdotes. When an Ottoman vizer had found he had displeased his sultan, he was served a glass of sherbet by one of the Sultan's Bostanbasi, an elite squad of gardener-executioners. If the sherbet was white, he would live, if it was red, he would know he was a condemned man.
Suleiman the Magnificent was said to be a huge fan of Sherbet. One popular story concerns the sultan ordering sherbet on a hot day while inspecting the janissary quarters. He was said to of returned his glass filled with gold, starting an annual tradition where the Janissaries would return the empty cup every time, expecting gold. His wife, the famous Roxelana even has one named after her. Sherbet was one of the most important features of a grand Ottoman banquet, and in 1573 alone almost one tonne of white rose sherbet was produced, with the palace gardens providing all the possible fruits and flower to be prepared. In the Ottoman hey-day, sherbet was sold by a serbetci, who would carry a large brass flask on their back, and serve sherbet in cups from a long nozel.
While the types of possible sherbet flavours are endless, some of the most popular include rose, demirhindi (tamarind), mandarin and pomegranate. Before fruit could be preserved in ice-boxes or fridges, Sherbet proved an excellent (and delicious) way of having fruit flavours available out-of-season. Sherbet was also enjoyed for its health benefits, said to both hydrate and have various nutritional properties. A vinegar-based Sikencebin sherbet was best enjoyed first thing in the morning to promote healthy digestion. Indigenous to Tropical Africa, the demirhindi trees grow up to sixty feet high and produce edible, pod-like fruit, and in addition to its positive effect on digestion and stomach discomfort, has been used in Southeast Asia as a fever cure for centuries. In Turkey it is best drunk as a sherbet before and during a lazy lunch with friends, preferably overlooking the Bosporus. In Kadikoy, Güler Osmanlı Mutfağı is one of the few establishments in Istanbul to continue serving a range of sherbets.
Today, Sherbet is reserved for special occasions, and is popular during the month of ramadan, when it is served in large crystal bowls and is enjoyed after sunset to break the day's fast. In rural areas of eastern Turkey, a popular tradition continues, whereby a groom and his family will arrive at a bride's house and drink sherbet together if the bride accepts the groom. A similar custom can be found in India and Afghanistan. Sherbet remains heavily linked to Turkey's past, serving as a reminder of the country's past, and when enjoyed by families and friends today, providing a link to times long gone, when sultans would serve sherbet to visiting dignitaries and serbetci would stroll the streets of Istanbul plying their trade and serving parched customers from both near and far. Indeed, the great poet and traveller Lord Byron himself was so impressed with the sherbet in Istanbul, when he visited the city in 1813 he wrote:
Give me a sun, I care not how hot, and sherbet, I care not how cool, and my Heaven is as easily made as your Persian's.
An animation about Istanbul & sherbet
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