Two years ago I visited Nevin Halici, one of the most important Turkish food writers, at her home in Konya, Turkey, which is also the town where the famous 13th century Sufi poet Rumi spent most of his adult life. In showing me around her city, she took me to an ancient stone building in a quiet suburb. It turned out to be the tomb of Rumi’s personal cook, Atesbaz-i Veli.
In the thousands of lines of ecstatic poetry Rumi wrote, still read and loved throughout the world, he referred to a surprising number of foods and dishes. Sometimes the food references are metaphors (God “hides the apples of meaning among branches of letters, leaves of words. The smell of apples wafts out ... only He remains unseen”); sometimes they’re images (“no sooner does the saucepan boil than the chickpeas start leaping up to the top, in hundreds of manifestations of ecstasy”). And sometimes they seem to be literal (“Just before daybreak I heard an excited voice: the lovely aroma of kalye [meat fried with vegetables] and borani [vegetables dressed with yogurt] is wafting toward us”).
Given the centrality of food images to his work, revering his cook’s tomb makes perfect sense to Rumi’s followers. Halici and other members of the Mevlevi Sufi order (which originated with Rumi) make pilgrimages there.
“Now you are a pilgrim too,” she said gently as we left.
Her sentiment was in keeping with Rumi’s tolerant, non-sectarian nature. During his life, the Christians and Jews of Konya revered him as a saint just as Muslims did. When he died, members of all three faiths accompanied his coffin to its tomb, all reading from their own scriptures.
(This is the sort of thing that enrages political Islamists such as Al Qaeda and the mullahs of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, who tend to regard Sufis as heretics. As recently as Feb. 14, Amnesty International reports, Iranian authorities bulldozed a Sufi house of worship in the city of Qom and imprisoned more than 170 Sufis. A lawyer who came to the town to defend them was himself arrested.)
One day during my stay in Konya, Halici and her sister cooked me a dinner of attractive dishes mentioned in Rumi’s poems.
They were a little like Turkish food, even more like Persian, but with a touch of medieval strangeness. Some used sour plums to give a tart note where modern Turkish dishes would use tomatoes, because the tomato was unknown in Turkey at Rumi’s time. Others used boiled-down grape juice instead of sugar for sweetening. Unripe melons were made into stuffed dolmas.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Halici was working on a book about this mystical food tradition. In November she published “Sufi Cuisine,” which includes recipes of dishes mentioned in Rumi’s poems, of other dishes referred to in a history of the Mevlevis written a century after Rumi’s time, and also of more recent dishes from a 19th century collection of Sufi recipes.
Recently I decided to give a dinner of these recipes at the home of Los Angeles-based filmmaker Aryana Farshad, who made the 2002 documentary “Mystic Iran: The Unseen World” on Sufis in Kurdistan and currently has a film in production on Rumi’s life. At the time of the dinner, she had just returned from the annual observation of the mystic’s death in Konya. She invited a number of friends who share her interest in Sufism.
The first thing everybody noticed was that many of the dishes were attractive to the eye. A simple lettuce salad is supposed to be surrounded by deep-red rose petals. Plain boiled apricots, sweetened with grape molasses (pekmez), develop a beautiful copper color as well as a richer flavor. A fish soup thickened with an extract of boiled crushed wheat is colored yellow with saffron and then decorated with an invocation to Rumi written in ground cinnamon.
Since Rumi’s family originated in northern Afghanistan, there was a pilaf in a Central Asian style, hearty, rather than elegant like a modern Turkish pilaf.
This earthy dish, called hassaten pilaf, is mentioned in the 14th century book “Manaqib al-Arifin” (The Deeds of the Wise). It is in the style of Balkh, the town in northern Afghanistan from which Rumi’s father immigrated to Anatolia (Turkey).
“Hassaten” means particularly (that is, particularly good). Like other pilafs, it balances sweet and savory elements -- rich chunks of lamb, pine nuts, garbanzos, currants and, when in season, chestnuts -- in a rice dish. The meat, vegetables and spices are cooked together in a stew-like mixture, then arranged in a pot as layers alternating with rice. The whole is then cooked so the layers are kept separate.
The dishes that were appreciated most were the ones most closely drawn from the poetry: sour spinach and sweet spinach. These closely related one-bowl entrees combine, in the case of the former, spinach, lamb, bulgur and pomegranate molasses. The latter has garbanzos rather than bulgur and the sweeter pekmez rather than pomegranate molasses.
Each offers a delectable window to the pleasures of long-ago tables, with pleasingly balanced flavors and textures in a pastoral dish that speaks of spring. Young lamb, tender spinach, a handful of grains or beans from the larder -- and the poet was fed.
One of Rumi’s most beloved verses is, “O God, I am your spinach -- cook me sour or sweet, however you wish.”