Food is powerful. A good meal can bring people together who normally can’t stand to be together (Thanksgiving, anyone?). A favorite dish can recall lost memories of childhood (Proust made a whole career out of this). But in Saygın Ersin’s The Pasha of Cuisine (translated by Mark Wyers), a man known only as the cook attempts to use his mastery of flavor and scent to win back his lost love from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire himself.
The book opens with leeks. The Chief Sword Bearer to the Sultan loathes them, but the cocky cook serves them up anyway. It’s the opening gambit in a plan he’s been working on for years, ever since he escaped certain death at the hands of the new Sultan’s guards along with all the other children of the old Sultan. Flashbacks show us how the cook survived and learned his art, as well as how he met his great love, Kamer. Meanwhile, the action chugs along as the cook’s leek dish results in his return to the palace, albeit as a cook in service to the volatile, cruel Chief Sword Bearer.
The best parts of The Pasha of Cuisine are obviously the lush descriptions of the food. There are several sections that made me wish that there was a Turkish restaurant I could rush out to so that I could try some of the things the cook made. As it turns out, the cook is not only a great cook; he also knows how to work magic with food. A whispered word can amplify the emotional impact of his dishes and inflame the eater’s passions, make them terribly ill, and more. The cook uses his creations to manipulate the people who can set Kamer free from the Odalisque Harem, where she was sent after they met and fell in love years ago. It’s a tricky process, as one might expect, and I was very entertained by the unintended consequences of the cook’s dishes.
Mark Wyer’s translation of Ersin’s book walks a careful line between making the book comprehensible, while still preserving the exotic names of some of the cook’s dishes. Wyers and Ersin use slightly archaic language throughout much of the book. I found some of the prose a little overworked until I started to think of it as a more-fleshed-out fairy tale. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the book to get in the way of the action and the cook’s apprenticeship and journeymanship struck me as something I might find in folklore.
The more I read The Pasha of Cuisine, the more I liked it. It was a treat to visit the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Most of all, I enjoyed the cook’s heroic journey. He battles all kinds of human monsters on his quest, armed only with a mighty knowledge of food and its effects on the eater. I would recommend this to readers who like a taste of the exotic, both in terms of setting and in terms of cuisine. Bon appetit!
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.