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Off the eaten track: Konya

Charles Perry, Arabist and food historian, continues his travels along the highways and byways of Turkey’s culinary past. In Konya he is invited to a traditional wedding feast – rice with everything

The final festivity in a traditional Konya wedding is a feast called “wedding rice” (düğün pilavı) to which anyone may come. That means literally anyone; no invitation is needed and no one is excluded. The food is cooked by specialist caterers who serve up to 10,000 guests at a time. Locals jest that on Sunday – these banquets are always held on a Sunday – the poor people of Konya stick spoons in their belts and wander around looking for a wedding rice. Naturally, the Konyalıs also tell a humorous story about a banquet-seeker who follows a crowd out to some remote neighbourhood, only to find they were headed to a funeral.

There’s a similar custom in Central Asia. In fact, the very symbol of Uzbekistan, reproduced on murals, postcards and gift-shop souvenirs throughout the country, is a crew of men in kaftans blowing on immensely long horns. On the day of a wedding, they march through the streets, trumpeting away to announce the feast. As in Konya, the more, the merrier; the ideal is to invite yetti mahalla, or “seven neighbourhoods”. The Uzbek wedding feast is also prepared by specialists, who cook mountains of pilav in hemispherical cauldrons four feet across.

Konya’s wedding caterers are big business. An advertisement for one of them covers a large building beside the Konya-Istanbul highway halfway between the airport and downtown. It’s not cheap to feed thousands of guests, but the tradition has one advantage. Families can never fall out over the menu, because it’s an absolutely stereotyped sequence of six dishes.

When I was in Konya recently, the food writer Nevin Halıcı found me a wedding rice by calling up one of the city’s leading caterers (who personally knew of twenty-five such feasts being held that day). It was to be in the cool, pleasant suburb of Meram, and the family was expecting a modest number of guests, something between 1,300 and 2,000. As it happened, the mother of the groom was a childhood friend of Nevin’s, so we were also able to attend the groom’s family’s party – a very much smaller, invitation-only event the night before the wedding rice.

The same caterer cooked both meals. These men do everything, even providing a water tank with multiple taps for the guests to wash their hands. He created his cooking stations by building a low wall of cinderblock about thirty feet long, with more bricks set at right angles to it at intervals of four or five feet. Seven huge copper kazans were placed at the junctures, and wood fires were built under them.

When we arrived for the groom’s party, chickpeas were boiling in one of the kazans, stock was being made from bones in another and soups were under way in two more. A man was hard at work toasting semolina for irmik helvası in the fifth kazan, stirring and shovelling it continually with a long wooden paddle. The milk that would eventually go into it was boiling nearby, alongside a kazan of water being boiled for sundry purposes. Masses of chopped meat had already been fried for adding to soups and pilavs the following day. Needless to say, cooking would continue all night.

The main course for the family dinner was tirit, chunks of braised lamb served on bread with onions. Showing he was no blind traditionalist, the caterer had topped it with chopped tomatoes and kıl biber (the local mild green pepper, so long and thin it looks like a string bean) instead of the usual yoghurt. As a Californian, I felt quite at home with this innovation – it made it a sort of California Cuisine tirit. In fact, the bride and groom, though both from Konya, had met while attending college in California.

The next day we returned for the wedding rice, and this time it was much easier to find the house, from all the cars parked up and down the street and walkers straggling in from several directions – men in business suits, teenagers in T-shirts, village women in flowered pantaloons. “This is tradition,” said Nevin as we walked among the tables set on the spacious lawn. “Some people sit the women at this table, the men at that table. But we will sit with the modern people.”

At any Konya feast, one sweet dish follows every two savoury dishes. So after our yogurt soup (topped with a bit of fat from the other soup – not strictly traditional, said Nevin) and a pilav mixed with chickpeas and topped with chunks of lamb, we had irmik helvası. Then came a tangy okra soup and some pilav topped with fried meat. As friends of the family, we were treated to an extra portion of meat concealed under the rice (this is quaintly called denizaltı, “under the sea”). At the end came the soupy rice pudding zerde, which in Konya is not necessarily coloured yellow with saffron.

True to the event’s name, every dish contained at least some rice. And true to tradition, everybody got “forty mouthfuls”. At least.

Charles Perry is the author of A Baghdad Cookery Book, a new translation of AI-Baghdadi’s Kitab al-Tabikh

Konya is the home of the Mevlevi dervish order, to which Nevin Halıcı’s family belongs. In his poems, the founder of the order mentioned a surprising number of foods for a mystic, and it is quite easy to put together a dinner of Mevlana’s dishes. Nevin served me such a dinner when I was in Konya. It included lettuce salad, noodle soup (tutmaç çorbası), su böreği, dried fruit compote (hoşaf} and an almond sweetmeat. And pilav, of course, which in Konya has the jocular nickname kara haber (the black news), because it indicates the meal is coming to an end. She has made a great study of this food tradition, and recently she published a book about the cuisine of the Mevlevis, to whom food was not just food but a metaphor and a theatre for spiritual training.

Sufi Cuisine, by Nevin Halıcı, published by Saqi Books, London, is sadly out of print

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 34
  • And Where Shall We Begin?

    Maureen Freely looks back on the life of the architectural historian Godfrey Goodwin, who died aged 84.

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  • Power Dressing

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  • In the spirit’s wake

    At last there need be nothing between you and the Bosphorus. Patricia Daunt tells the story of how two architects created Sumahan on the Water, breathing new life into an old Ottoman spirit factory. Photographs by Jürgen Frank

  • Land of a Thousand Mansions

    A 40-page celebration of the architectural heritage of the Eastern Black Sea Mountains

  • Painting his way into history

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Issue 34, 2005 Ottoman Kaftans
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    TÜMATA The Traditional Turkish Music Research and Promotion Society, Dr Rahmi Oruc Güvenc

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  • The Way of Mevlana

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