THOUGHTS of food are never far away from the month of Ramadan. The period from dawn to dusk gives plenty of time for spiritual reflection and, for some, thinking about the next meal.
Few paintings in the Islamic world actually depict eating. In any culture it’s not what viewers want to see, and in the past this was an even more unsavoury experience. Diners licking their fingers and failing to observe modern norms of hygiene are more distressing in medieval Europe than in medieval Islam, where some of the fundamentals originated: the fork, for example.
Pre-modern dental practices would have been another cause of artists not to dwell in too much detail on the consumption of food. When Kazakhstan’s supposed emissary Borat talks of the beauty of American women in the film that bears his name, it is on the basis that their “teeth only grow on the inside of their mouths”. This would have been less typical in the past.
Wine, on the other hand, was something that a number of artists from selected parts of the Islamic world were happy to show. In Iran and India, taking a deep draught of old-style Shiraz was a symbolic act. The great Persian scholar Omar Khayyam, made his priorities clear in the Rubaiyat:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou...”
Rumi has supplanted Omar Khayyam as the world’s favourite Muslim thinker, supported by CDs and podcasts narrated by Madonna and Demi Moore. In 2007, Unesco declared his 800th birthday to be the “Year of Rumi”. Since then it has become more than a Decade of Rumi. Not only is his work accessible and often about food, but he was also far more of a Sufi than Omar Khayyam, who inclined towards gloomy ruminations.
Two subjects that rarely fail to fascinate modern audiences of different faiths are food and Sufism. Rumi brings it all together. It is even possible to work out the recipes that Rumi and his followers were relying on. For those who have not experienced much more than kebabs, it is quite a revelation. There is now a branch of the culinary arts, mainly in Turkey, which can be described as “Sufi cuisine”.
The central character in the development of this food is Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. Rumi is known everywhere for his poetry, but his contribution to the kitchen has been less widely exposed. There are countless parallels between religious belief and the cooking process. Among the many memorable analogies by Rumi that are often quoted is: “I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned.”
There are numerous 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 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 that their brotherhoods worked on. Some of these will still be familiar, while others are rarely encountered.
The recipes can be neatly classified in the same way that they might be in a modern cookery book. Most of them are still in use today in the Konya region of Turkey. The ingredients might sometimes be difficult to obtain elsewhere, including Malaysia, although with the growing number of Turkish restaurants here, it is possible to find the food without having to cook it yourself.
Among the surprises from 700 years ago is the attitude to olive oil, which was not used for cooking. Apparently, it was suitable for lamps, while butter or sheep’s tail fat was considered appropriate for human consumption.
Contrary to the suspicion that vegetarianism might have been a lifestyle choice for Sufi practitioners, meat formed the main ingredient; and yes, kebabs did make a prominent showing. There is much more than this, of course.
At least 100 recipes exist from his day, so there are plenty 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 in his cooking.
Food is a central part of the Islamic world and its emphasis on hospitality. It is what binds most societies, none more so than in Malaysia.
Despite this, there are surprisingly few recipes that have recorded how to pull off triumphs at the dinner table — or on the floor mat.
The Sufis of Rumi’s day were supreme in this, along with a few, less poetic exponents from India and Iran. The master chefs of the Malay Peninsula were not. The local contribution more usually takes the form of handbooks on herbs and medicine, and absolutely no visual representations of mealtimes in traditional local art.
To bring a more spiritual flavour to the Aidilfitri gatherings, it might be worth looking beyond rendang and lemang. Why not enter the world of Rumi by trying out eggplant, sauteed close to melting point and blended with mint, whey and a few more (crisp) onions?
Alternatively, you could try out some of his couplets while prowling for Hari Raya gatherings. According to the Great Guide, “The lion is most handsome when looking for food.”