FOOD SUFI CUISINE By NEVIN HALICI [Saqi, 240pp., 2005]
TWO SUBJECTS that never fail to fascinate authences of all faiths are food and Sufism. Bringing them together in a single volume is an inspired decision. The book is so heartily endorsed by the grande dame of gastronomy, Claudia Roden, it would be hard to start reading with anything but admiration. Added to this is the presentation of the work, which is masterly. The illustrations by Ahmet Efe bring the book to life without needing a single photograph of dishes or whirling dervishes.
Author Nevin Halici knows as much about Turkish food as any writer around today. For those who have not experienced much more than kebabs, it will be quite a revelation. She starts with a look at the life of the central character in the development of Sufi cuisine. Rumi is known everywhere for his poetry, but his contribution to the kitchen has been less widely exposed. It seems that there are countless parallels between religious belief and the cooking process. Among the many memorable analogies by Rumi that have been cited is: “I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned.”
There is an entire section of the book devoted to the many Rumi couplets that relate to different aspects of cooking. The Sufi orders took food far more seriously than their sometimes austere image might suggest. Appreciating God’s bounty at meal times was a sensual experience, albeit with a strict hierarchy and a “no-talking” rule. It is not just in the 20th and 21st centuries that chefs have achieved celebrity status. In the 13th century, Rumi’s chef Ates-baz Veli was sufficiently important to be given a memorial-possibly the first chef ever to be have been granted this distinction. For Sufi initiates, life began in the lowliest kitchen jobs. Fortunately, much has been recorded about their lives and the recipes their brotherhoods worked on. Some of these will still be familiar, while others are rarely encountered. The recipes are neatly classified in the same way that they would in a typical cookery book. All of them seem practical, and most are still in use today in the Konya region of Turkey. For those living elsewhere, the ingrethents might sometimes be difficult to obtain.
There are a few surprises, including the fact that seven hundred years ago olive oil was not used for cooking. Apparently, it was suitable for lamps, while butter or sheep’s tail fat was appropriate for human consumption. Contrary to the suspicion that vegetarianism might have been a lifestyle choice for Sufi practitioners, meat formed the main ingrethent; and yes, kebabs do not make a showing. There is much more than this, of course. With over 100 recipes to choose from, all tastes are covered, except those with a taste for alcohol. Rumi’s poetry may mention wine, but this metaphorical use was not carried over to his cooking.
It is not often a cookery book combines history, poetry and gastronomy. Saqi books has managed this in style. The only criticism that can be made is the somewhat Turkocentric spellings that have been used. Not every reader will immediately identify “Celaleddin” as the great Jalal ai-Din Rumi.