book review, Constantinople, cuisine, distant storytelling, essences, flavors, historical fiction, inner journey, omniscient narrator, ordained events, outer journey, Saygin Ersin, the power of food, Turkey
Review: The Pasha of Cuisine, by Saygin Ersin
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers
Arcade, 2016. 281 pp. $26
Once upon a time in Constantinople, a cook wangles a job at the sultan’s palace so he can spring the woman he loves from the harem. Is he dreaming? Does he really think he can infiltrate that inner sanctum, forbidden to all males save eunuchs, and spirit his lover away, let alone live to tell about it?
Not exactly. And the manner in which the cook — who has no other name — sets about his quest makes for a highly entertaining (and mouth-watering) narrative, recounted in a style reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. As you may imagine, “no — and furthermore” resides here, the penalty for failure is unthinkable, and there is considerable back story.
How does the cook, whom many call the Pasha of Cuisine, a title earned through talent and study and testament to his unique powers, come to be where he is? No one knows. What sorcery informs his skill, or, for believers in rational thought, why do his dishes have the effects they do? No one can figure that out either, though they try.
So there are two mysteries here, the man and his plan, and both depend on cooking. I’m all for that. And since it’s a cultural given that a Pasha of Cuisine cooks not only for himself or his patron or employer, but to raise the level of taste and appreciation throughout the land — so much so that harvests become more bountiful — the cook’s gift has a public meaning. Much rests on that, for his ability, his presence, open doors closed to ordinary chefs, let alone the story itself, wouldn’t work without that instant entrée.
That talent cuts two ways, however, for, as with anyone who works at the palace, you take your life in your hands:
Like the other [palace] gate, the Gate of Salutation was a passage, but much longer. The light at the other end seemed to be far, far away, as though symbolizing the plight of those who passed through. Living at the palace was a journey, the end of which was unknown as you walked through the Gate of Salutation. That held true for everyone, from the youngest page to His Highness the Sultan himself. You walked toward the light, yet it seemed that you’d never reach it. Your life spilled onto that infinite road moment by moment, hour by hour, and day by day; you were filled with the fear that you may be plunged into darkness at any time. And in the end, your life would be extinguished either at the hands of an executioner or by a natural death, at best becoming a few lines in a dusty history book.
Like all heroes on a quest, our cook has a tragic past, which influences what he has learned and how he has gone about it. Among his lessons are the six layers of taste; the ineffable names of flavors and aromas; and the spiritual powers of food to influence mood and character, moderated by bodily humors and the signs of the zodiac. It’s complicated but always intriguing.
Just as his education, his outer journey, leads him to the palace, his inner journey involves coming to terms with the pain he would rather forget. I like this psychological and philosophical aspect better than the concoctions themselves or the studies that inform them, not only because they are character-dependent, and character is a flimsy reed here, but also because of the storytelling style.
As in the paragraph quoted above, Ersin adopts a wide, omniscient lens, and though that suits his tale in a way—and is likely traditional–it also distances the reader. The narrative explains more than shows, and even when you see the action, in which people yield to the cook’s wishes, that miraculous quality I referred to earlier, you don’t always feel as if you’re in the scene. That applies particularly in the book’s first half, whereas, during the cook’s psychological quest, he and his surroundings come through more clearly.
Consequently, the narrative hangs mostly on the cook’s clever machinations and Byzantine plot twists (sorry; I couldn’t resist), not always satisfying, as they seem ordained, despite the depth of the struggle.
Yet The Pasha of Cuisine is worth your time as an entertaining tale of romance and intrigue. And if you read it, I suggest having snacks handy — tasty mezes, perhaps.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.