Mindfulness, Ottoman style?


The Ottomans, being meritocrats who rewarded talent over accidents of birth, were naturally keen on self-improvement. If you entered palace service, you were educated formally at first, and then expected to carry on improving your skills and learning new ones. By the end, if you were good, you were in a position to handle the demands of high office. You might even make it to Grand Vizier.

I shall never make vizier, but I approve of the Ottoman attitude to self-improvement. We all try to get better at what we do, and perhaps we should try to get better at things we don’t do, too, or didn’t until now. This year I set aside my books and learned how to restore an ancient house, how to write a screenplay using Final Draft and how to take photographs, principally of food. As many of you will know from your own experience, the effort proved enjoyable, and worthwhile.

I needed beautiful pictures to illustrate Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book, for which many of you have already kindly tested recipes. I do have beautiful pictures of Ottoman Istanbul, with old maps, illustrations and engravings, to accompany the text and help evoke the atmosphere of Yashim’s Istanbul. I have lovely photographs of the modern city, its markets, ferries, domes and shops, to forge the link between Yashim’s time and our own. That leaves only the dishes themselves to be portrayed, hinting at their excellence.


Advised by a website called thewoksoflife I bought a new sort of lens, and took estimable advice and instruction available on the internet. Bearded professionals revealed some of the secrets of their craft on YouTube, camera buffs on chatrooms discussed the virtues of RAW and jpeg, and bloggers, in Manhattan lofts as in Cornish villages, showed off their cooking and photographic skills. Absorbing all this, I realised it came down to: the right lens, and the right sort of light. The right lens makes the background blur, which we photographers call bokeh, and the right light is daylight.


After that, all you need is delicious food, charming surfaces, acceptable crockery, table cloths, clean spoons, salt cellars and small bowls, a scattering of fresh parsley from your garden and a tripod, for which sometimes a box will serve. You also need a reflector, to chase away shadows. I was told I needed tweezers, too, for arranging salad leaves, but I skipped that. I relied on opposable thumbs.


Above all you need to get your food ready while it is still light, and you need to eat something yourself before you set it all out, otherwise you get hasty. And greedy.


Patience is absolute. Remember Mustafa the Soup Master in The Janissary Tree?

“As for himself, he thought, patience was his second skin. How could he have lived his life, and not acquired patience in positively redemptive quantities?”








4 thoughts on “Mindfulness, Ottoman style?

  1. Claire Byrne

    Really looking forward to publication of Yashim’s Cookbook – the shots in this post, particularly the last two, are fab – beautfiul in their simplicity, and really capturing, for me, the atmosphere of Yashim’s kitchen.

  2. Adrian

    Hi, Jason!
    My name is Adrian, I am 35 and I’m Romanian. I just finished reading your book, On foot to the Golden Horn and I felt physically sick while reading the chapters about Romania. Your book brought back so many painful memories from that period. The currency scams, the dreadful hotels, the orphans, the dirt and grime. Iliescu, the miners. I hate to say cathartic, but that’s how it was.

    I was born in the south, but my mother is from Bihor, near Oradea, and I went to law school there. I even stayed in the same hotel as you in Oradea and drank beer in that awful beer garden. Yes, it was still there in 2002. And the hotel looked, smelled and felt the same. It was eerie reading that part.

    I agree we don’t deserve Transylvania. I felt the same ever since I arrived there in 1998. Since you walked through my country, a lot has changed here, but a lot is the same and some things are even worse.

    If you ever decide to visit Romania again, I’d be honored to meet you.(I still live here, for now).

    Strangely enough, in January 2014 I started learning Turkish, then went to Istanbul for the very first time. and then I fell in love with Turkey and especially Turkish cuisine. So, anxiously waiting for the new book!

    I want to say another thing, for what it’s worth. Every day I try to be everything Romanians are not and inspire them to change their corrupt ways, by writing social satire. Görüşürüz!


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