In the Yashim short story The Man Who Stole Puppies the
“Up in his apartment, Yashim riddled the stove and set a pan on the coals, for a stock he made with chicken bones and an onion spiced with cloves. He clapped on a lid, blew into his cupped hands, and held them closer to the heat, flexing his fingers.
He peeled and halved the onions, and sliced them thinly on the board while the butter melted in a wide pan. The smell of gently frying onions was always good, like the scent of hot bread, charcoaled meat or crushed mint.
The valide was right, of course: simplicity was haut ton. The sultan’s eggs were a case in point.
Every year, at the end of Ramadan, the sultan sent for a dish of eggs with onions. There was no trick to the dish, which called for no peculiar ingredients, or fanciful techniques.
The palace chef sliced some onions, very fine, and sweated them in butter for three hours. After that, it was still an easy dish: a splash of vinegar, a pinch of crushed allspice, some sugar, a little salt, and then you made a nest in the jammy onions, and cracked an egg into it, and put the lid back on.
The egg should be firm, but the yolk could be just a little bit runny…
If the sultan had liked this delicious, but exacting, dish he sent word to confirm that the chef was head of the kitchens, and of the hundreds of chefs who laboured under him.
It was a wise arrangement. Anyone could learn a technique – to clear a soup with egg, say, or spin sugar with a stick – but to make something simple, perfectly – ah! That, Yashim knew, called for vigilance, balance and judgement. Simplicity took real understanding.
The day was fading and Yashim lit the lamps, noticing how the light blossomed in the room and how darkness seemed to rush in against the windows, where the water droplets sparkled on the black glass. He opened a casement a crack, and felt a chill draught.
Three hours to make onion jam might not concern a Topkapi chef, but for our purposes an hour with a pinch of salt is long enough to melt the onions into fragrant deliquescence. Keep a lid on the onions while they cook, to trap the moisture.
© 2016 All rights reserved. Published by Argonaut Books.