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Mystical Mouthfuls

Has any mystic ever mentioned food as often, or in such detail, as Mevlâna? “I am your spinach, cook me as you desire, sour or sweet…” “O saffron, drink water until you become saffron, and only then enter the zerde…” “I’ve eaten neither kavurma nor tirit nor lentils…” Bushaq of Shiraz, perhaps, but he merely parodied famous verses by other poets, substituting food for the usual Sufi wine imagery. To Mevlâna, food was the spontaneous language of ecstasy.

As Nevin Halıcı describes in this book, the Mevlevi dervish order he founded in Konya is shot through with food. In the era before the dervish tarikas were closed, the kitchen was the heart of a Mevlevi lodge. The chief spiritual adviser was the Asçı Dede, or Cook Father, who also oversaw the mundane workings of the kitchen.

Atefl-Baz-ı Veli, Mevlâna’s cook, is a revered figure among Mevlevis – his tomb in a suburb of Konya is a place of pilgrimage. (Halıcı points out that it is probably the oldest tomb of a cook anywhere in the world.) Legend credits him with the opening posture of the Mevlevi devotional dance. Atefl-Baz had complained that he hadn’t enough wood for cooking, so Mevlâna told him to put his feet under the stove in place of the wood, and his toes obligingly emitted fire. But because he had doubted, his left big toe was burned, and he covered it in shame. This is said to be the reason that the Mevlevis begin their sema with the toes of the right foot over those of the left.

Nevin Hanım is the obvious person to write about Mevlevi food. She belongs to a prominent Mevlevi family in Konya, and a food-oriented one; one of the sources she cites is a paper on Mevlevi kitchen etiquette by Celaleddin Çelebi, one of Mevlana’s last descendants, which was presented at a 1986 food symposium organised by Nevin’s brother. She herself is the author of important studies on Turkish regional cuisines.

The present book is a unique combination of scholarship and what you’d have to call devotional gastronomy. Halıcı has studied the early histories and memoirs of the Mevlevis and read through all of Mevlâna’s thousands of ecstatic verses for the food references in them. Some of his verses, as she points out, are virtual recipes. Her recipe for fried carp is based on the famous couplet: “I am like a fish in the market, in the bazaar, in the pan, flipping from one side to the other, turning over and over – I burn and blaze.”

She interprets all the dishes mentioned in her sources in the light of present-day Konya cooking practice, and it is reasonable to assume a culinary continuity in Konya, given the way everything revolves around Mevlâna there. On the basis of all this, she reconstructs a unique religious cuisine, one based on neither holiday foods nor food prohibitions, but on one mystic’s works and practices. She considers it one of the roots of modern Turkish cuisine.

I have tried a number of recipes from this book and I can say that it does represent a fascinating cuisine which has one foot in the Perso-Arab medieval tradition, with its eriflte noodles, candied rose petals and sirkencübin (honeyed vinegar). Many dishes are flavoured in with fruits, in the Persian and medieval Arab manner, which is relatively uncommon in Turkey today. Halıcı substitutes tomato juice and convincingly suggests that it has replaced the medieval sour fruit juices. Europeans and Americans often wonder why so many Turkish tomato sauces are rather thin; well, they are not failed versions of Italian marinara sauce, they are descended from sauces based on, say, pomegranate juice or sour grape juice.

Mevlevi cuisine also includes Central Asian contributions such as börek, tutmaç noodles and the humble flour soup bulamaç aflı. One exceptionally interesting and delicious dish is Belh-Özbek pilav, which entered the tradition because it comes from Balkh, Mevlâna’s ancestral home in northern Afghanistan. It is made with meat, chickpeas and carrots and resembles what the Turks today call Buhara pilavı, except that this version is enriched with pine nuts and chestnuts. It also contains currants, which probably stand in for the barberries used in Central Asia.

She gives a recipe for baklava using a Konya-style dough, which contains water filtered through wood ashes to give it a unique texture, both soft and crisp. I must say I suspect that in Mevlâna’s time it was probably made with something like sheets of noodle paste, rather than the paper-thin dough used in modern baklava, but this is the Konya recipe, and continuity is all.

In the middle ages, sugar was more expensive than it is today, so honey or pekmez (grape syrup) usually stood in its place, and this gives a distinctive countenance to many sweet dishes. Pekmez, in particular, would give a baklava a rather different effect than today’s sugar syrup cut with lemon juice.

One of my favourite recipes in this book is carrots stewed with rice, butter and pekmez. They are utterly delicious, as well as having an impressive coppery colour.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 36
  • Heaven on a Plate

    This modern Turkish favourite is a descendant of şeker gurabiye, the biscuit served at 16th-century Ottoman feasts

  • Divine Restoration

    By the mid-1990s the Zeyrek Camii was in a state of alarming decrepitude. Now that the Byzantine masterpiece has been rescued, what lessons have been learnt? For Robert Ousterhout, who was closely involved in the restoration, the old ways are always the best. Photographs by Jürgen Frank

  • New Light on Old Glories at the V&A

    For three years, the main Islamic Middle East gallery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was closed. It reopened in 2006 with spectacular effect. Here we present some key aspects of a stunning permanent collection that can now be seen, literally, in an entirely new light. Commentary by its curator, Tim Stanley. Gallery photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

  • Crimea

    The Crimean War of 1853–56 which ended 150 years ago this year [2006] now seems very remote. Why were Great Britain and France, in alliance with Ottoman Turkey, fighting Russia in the Black Sea? Norman Stone investigates the causes and reviews an exhibition of Crimean War memorabilia at the Sadberk Hanim Museum.

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Issue 36, 2006 A Beauty on the Bosphorus
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