2006/02/01

Sufi Cuisine: Nevin Halici

By JULIETTE ROSSANT

Sufi Cuisine, by Nevin Halici At a time when it is essential for Americans to gain a deeper understanding of the people of the Middle East, their history, culture, and religions, Sufi Cuisine (Saqi 2005) is a welcome and engrossing book.

The author, Dr. Nevin Halici, an expert on the history of Turkish cuisine, hails from Konya, founded by Mowla-naa Jalaal Al-Diin Al-Ruumii, better known to the West (and Iran) as Rumi and to Turks as "Mevlana". Of Mevlana she writes in her Introduction: "From Konya he transmitted messages of love, friendship and brotherhood to the people of his war-ravage era." (p. 21) Anyone who has a chance to see these mystical dancers and musicians perform gains only a glimpse of what the Sufi order is all about. There are many Sufi orders throughout the Middle East that guide everyday life and thought, and this book illuminate that culture through cuisine.

Middle Eastern cuisine specialist Claudia Roden writes in the Forward to the book:
This book has many facets – it is a cultural history, a book of poetry, a culinary memoir and a collection of recipes. It also gives rare insight into the spiritual wisdom and philosophy that Rumi expressed through ecstatic love poetry seeking to unite humanity in love, respect and brotherhood. (p. 15)
Turks like to say that theirs is one of the great world cuisines along with French, Chinese and Japanese. This book is about the 13th century foundations of that cuisine, which continue on to the present day.

The book begins with a history of Mevlana's life and the rules of the kitchen and dining for the order. "Anyone wishing to enter the Mevlevi Order must observe the workings of the kitchen for three days from a designated area" (p. 31). Nevin Hanim describes the centrality of cuisine to the Mevlevi order. Much like the kitchen brigade of French classical cuisine, there was a strict hierarchy in the kitchen, including a sherbet maker, a coffee grinder and the Kazanci Dede or the Keeper of the Cauldron who was in charge of the kitchen (p. 33).

Al-Kindi Ensemble

The book covers recipes mentioned in Mevlana's writings, almost all of which are still made in Konya today, and if not, many are eaten in Afghanistan (where Mevlana was born) and Iran. She includes couplets from Mevlana with each recipe, such as this one that leads the recipe for Fried Fish:
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
(p. 47)
Following comes for Sweet Buttery Soup or Balamac Asi (pp. 48-49) which, Nevin Hanim explains, is prepared by the mother of the bride and sent ahead of the bride to her husband's house so that she is surrounded by sweetness in her new home. Again she quotes Mevlana:
But when your soul is intoxicated it has no desire for even that food;
will anyone drunk on the contemplation of your face even look at balamac asi?
(p. 48)
This is a truly unusual dish not often found outside of Konya. The facing page has one of the unusual minatures by Ahmet Efe that illustrate the book. The minatures put the food into context of the life of Mevlana and his order.

Subsequent chapters are rich with recipes mentioned in Mevlana's works still prepared in Konya today like the unusual Neck of Lamb (p. 70 )that is actually served in both savory and sweet version. This should come as no surprise to those who have tasted the Turkish pudding Tavuk Gogsu, made with chicken breast. Many dishes are less exotic like the Diced Kebab or Sis Kebab on the facing page 171.

There is a wonderful discussion of Helva ("halva" in Persian, "halwa" in Arabic) in the book, which is not the sesame paste confection common in Middle Eastern Stores in America. In Turkey, helva is made of any kind of flour and is served at all special occasions. Nevin Hanim gives recipes for Almond Helva (p. 120), Honey Helva (p. 121), Snow Helva (p. 122) which is made of snow and grape molasses, Pekmez Helva (p. 122), and Helva Prepared with Sugar (p. 123).

At the end of the book Nevin has all the poetry written by Mevlana about cuisine, food and customs, including these wonderful lines: "Cook, mature, and be spared the fate of spoiling" (208). The pages are filled with his wise verse that still ring true to present day cooks and food writers.

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Cook Like a Kyrgyz
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