Published by Arcade Publishing
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Genres: Cultural, Fiction, Historical, Magical Realism
The light radiating from the Pasha of Cuisine spread across fields, gardens, orchards, and farms, and from there penetrated kitchens, the hands of cooks, and palates, beginning a new era of opulence, prosperity, joy, and health. In short, a new golden age of taste.
Set in the time of Aghas and Sultans, in Constantinople, the greatest city of the Ottoman Empire, The Pasha of Cuisine is a marvelous tale that echoes the feeling of One Thousand and One Nights (one of my favorite books from childhood). It is the story of a cook who, from a very young age, has a more refined palate than anyone around him. His life is upended when the new sultan decrees that all male heirs to the throne be killed. He is one of the heirs, but he escapes and is hidden by a master chef who recognizes him to be the Pasha of Cuisine—a miracle in the world of food that only comes along once or twice in a century.
…said to be in possession of the perfect palate, the ability to distinguish and wield power over very flavor down to the smallest detail, the blessed on of the culinary arts, the sovereign of every dish in the world.
Through his food he will be able to bend the will of others to his own wishes, but his destiny is still unclear.
Such a gift must be nurtured and so the boy is sent to chefs across the empire who each teach him another aspect of food and cooking. While a teenager he works at the House of Pleasure, a place that caters to every and any desire a man might have. There he meets a young dancing girl, Kamer, and they fall in love. Of course, it doesn’t end well and they are separated, but he is determined to find her again.
While a love story is always grand, it is the cook’s education that is most fascinating. He meets twin brothers, one of whom is a doctor and the other an astrologer. From them he learns how plants can harm or heal, how the elements in nature correspond to the elements in the human body, and how the alignment of the stars can impact a plant’s potency and flavor. After his time with them he travels to an island in the Persian Gulf to learn everything about spices from the Lady of Essences. As his time with her nears its end she tells him that his fate is a tangled one and in order to fulfill his destiny he can’t pursue the normal path to being the Pasha of Cuisine. And so, he finds himself in Alexandria with the first of many monumental tasks ahead of him.
There is so much of wonder in The Pasha of Cuisine that it’s impossible to encapsulate it in a review. Author Saygin Ersin must have a tremendous love of food because passage after passage about the Pasha’s cooking made me hungry for foods and recipes I’d never even heard of before, like milk kebabs and levzine. Even a ‘simple’ chicken soup is elevated by his description:
There wasn’t a trace of flavor from the egg that had been used to thicken the soup; as if under the control of a master conductor, it duly performed the task of bringing out the scent of lemon and the richness of the chicken—nothing more, nothing less.
Beyond the food, Ersin composes far more than a story—he builds an entire world. Each person the cook encounters is an ingredient that goes towards making him Pasha, just as each character in The Pasha of Cuisine is a flavor that enhances the story as a whole. Ersin’s attention to all the details of the times is made even better with a touch of magical realism. Not enough to throw the novel into the realm of fairy tale, but enough to enchant.
If contemporary novels or uncomfortable, complicated reading have worn you out then there is no better antidote than The Pasha of Cuisine. It is evocative and both comforting and exciting. I only wish it was like One Thousand and One Nights so that I could have 998 more nights of delightful, pure enjoyment.