Tavuk gogsu literally means chicken breast in Turkish. This dessert, which very few people know about and even fewer know how to prepare, is the ancestor of the much more famous Kazandibi.
A thick cream made from chicken, milk and rice flour, it originated in the ancient Roman Empire, and then became a progenitor of the culinary tradition of Constantinople, even reaching the tables of the European bourgeoisie in the Middle Ages.
Early traces of the dessert in Roman cuisine
Very often, when we analyze the roots of a dish, we have to reckon with the most important gastronome in history, Marcus Gavius Apicius. In his culinary treatise “De re coquinaria,” book VI chapter IX, the famous cook reports a recipe starring chicken and milk.
The recipe in Latin is called “Pullus tractogalatus,” which can be translated as “chicken with pasta and milk.” Although pasta is present as an ingredient, it is not to be confused with a modern-day pasta dish; rather, in our case the cook uses this lasagna of flour and water as the thickening element of the recipe. Below are the translated steps of the recipe:
“Chicken with pasta and milk – Cook the chicken with oil, wine, a bunch of cilantro, and onion. Then, when it is cooked, you shall remove it from its dip ; and you shall put in a new casserole of milk, and salt discreetly with much less honey and water. That is, with a third part only ; and you shall set it to heat over a slow fire.
Crush a sheet, and throw it in little by little, stirring constantly, so that it may not take on a sticky texture. Then put in the chicken either whole or cut in pieces ; turn it over in a dish, and season it with the following sauce.
Mince pepper, ligustic and marjoram ; bathe with honey moderately; temper in a casserole dish with the chicken gravy itself ; boil, and when it boils, bind with starch, and serve..”
“De re coquinaria,” book VI chapter IX. Marcus Gavius Apicius
So it was a kind of chicken and milk-based casserole, thickened with the use of wheat lasagna, and served with a spiced honey-based sauce. This is precisely the father of our tavuk gogsu.
The Byzantine Period
Throughout Europe, as in the streets of the Byzantine empire, the milk and chicken dish became a popular food. In Europe it began to be known as “blancmange.” The name reports the main characteristic of the dish, the white color. All the ingredients remained unchanged for centuries, keeping as the only rule the use of white ingredients.
In fact, as the centuries progressed after Apicius’ ancient recipe, honey was replaced by sugar, which is precisely white in color, lasagna with rice flour and the many spices in use in Roman times gave way only to cinnamon.
Although not white, cinnamon had the function of contrasting both in flavors and colors, as long as it was eventually put on top of the dish, and not inside the mixture.
— Legend Tours SA (@LegendToursSA) July 17, 2019
The dessert of the pasha
With the advent of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of Constantinople, Greek gastronomic culture was violently incorporated into Turkish traditions. In fact, even today, the traditional desserts of our peninsula are the result of this forced cultural exchange between the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires.
And that is exactly how the milk and chicken flan became the undisputed star of the pasha banquets, with the name tavuk gogsu (precisely “chicken breast”).
Over the years some modifications were made, such as caramelizing the bottom of the pan. And thus the far more famous kazandibi (literally “bottom of the pan”) was born. The pan of tavuk gogsu itself would be taken and passed over the stove, so that the bottom would be darkened and have a more pronounced aromatic note.
Over the centuries, variations of the same recipe, without chicken, became more common, for a simple practical and economic reason: fewer ingredients, less expense. And so the dish transitioned from savoury to sweet.
So kazandibi is basically a simplified variant of tavuk gogsu? Exactly.
The grandmothers of Constantinople
As mentioned earlier, the Greek population in Constantinople has always been large, even during the period of Ottoman occupation. However, things changed in the last century, when various episodes and tragedies forced the Greek inhabitants of Constantinople to leave their homes and businesses.
Suffice it to say that in 1923, the governments of Greece and Turkey signed an exchange of inhabitants. In fact the Greek Orthodox were to leave Turkey and go to Greece, and the Muslims vice versa.
Whole families from Constantinople (of Greek culture) had to leave their lives forever, and move or “escape” to Greece. Like any migration movement, however, it is not only people who move, but also memories, customs and cultures.
And so it is, that between the pages of our grandmothers’ cookbooks, rich in meaning and history, tavuk gogsu and kazandibi traveled and became traditional Greek sweets, especially in the region of Macedonia.
In fact, those fortunate enough to have Constantinople origins might ask their grandparents what the real kazandibi is: and the answer will always be “the tavuk gogsu.”
As we often see in these tales of culinary history, the efforts and lives of our ancestors have given us indelible flavors, scents and memories in our DNA, even if we have not experienced them firsthand. But most importantly, every morsel, or crumb, of our favorite foods has made journeys, often over thousands of years, to end up on our tables.