Food and dietary practices have always played an important part in all religions. Among them, Islam is perhaps known to impose the most elaborate and strict rules in this respect. In practice, these rules have been reinterpretated in regional adaptations, particularly in Turkey, where it is harder to find strict Muslims. In Anatolia where a variety of Sufi orders flourished, food gained a spiritual dimension above dry religious requirements, as can be seen in their poetry, music, and practices.
Paradoxically, the month of Ramadan, when all Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk, is also a month of feasting and charitable feeding of all those who are in need. Fasting is to purify the body and the soul and at the same time, to develop a reverence for all blessings bestowed by nature and cooked by a skillful chef. The days are spent preparing food for the breaking of fast at sunset. It is customary to break the fast by eating a bite of "heavenly" food such as olives or dates and nibbling lightly on a variety of cheeses, slices of sausage, jams and pide. This would be followed by the evening prayers and then the main meal. In the old days, the rest of the night would be occupied by games and conversations, or going into town to attend the various musicals and theaters, until it was time to eat again just before firing of the cannon or beating of the drums marking the beginning of the next day's fasting. People would rest until noon, when shops and work places opened and food preparation began...
The other major religious holiday is the "Sacrifice Holiday," commemorating Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in the name of God. But God sent him a ram instead, sparing his son's life. The act of sacrificing an animal, in Turkey most likely a sheep, represents repentance and a solemn promise to do good on earth. The meat is sent to neighbours and to the needy. The sheep is revered as the creature of God that gives its life for a higher purpose. The henna colouring on the sheep is a symbolic way of showing this respect and so are the strict instructions for slaughtering. In fact, it is believed that one of these rams will take the believer across the "hair-thin and razor-sharp bridge" to heaven on Judgement Day.
Several other occasions commemorating Prophets also involve food. The six holy nights marking events in Prophet Mohammed's life are celebrated by baking special pastries, breads and lokma. The month of "Muharrem" occurred when the flood waters had receded, and Noah and his family were able to land. It is believed that then they cooked a meal using whatever had remained in their supplies. This event is celebrated by cooking the same dish -"asure" or Noah's pudding, made of wheat berries, dried legumes, rice, raisins, currants, dried figs, dates and nuts. You can also taste this most nourishing pudding at certain muhallebi shops any time.
The feast of the Prophet Zaccharia is prepared upon being granted one's wish. This feast consists a spread of forty-one different types of dried fruits and nuts served to guests. Prayers are read and everyone tastes all forty-one foods. A guest can then burn a candle and make a wish. If the wish comes true, one is obligated to prepare a similar "Zaccharia Table" for others.
Beyond these practices, examples of a spiritual tradition imbued with food metaphors are found in Sufism generally, and in the poetry of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi in particular, as well in the verses of classical Turkish poetry and music. In fact, to understand the full meaning of this spiritual tradition would be impossible without deciphering the references to food and wine, cooking, eating, and intoxication. Mevlana, who lived in Konya in the 13 th century A.D., represents an approach to Sufism that follows the Way of Love to Divine Reality, rather than Knowledge, or gnosis. As mentioned earlier, the food-related guilds and the Janissaries also followed the Sufi Order. A clash of philosophies on food is told in a story about Empress Eugenie's French chef, who was sent to the Sultan's kitchen to learn how to cook an eggplant dish. He soon begged to be excused from this impossible task, saying that when he took his book and scales with him, the Turkish chef threw all of them out the window, because "an Imperial chef must learn to cook with his feelings, his eyes and his nose"- in other words, with love!
Asceticism, rather than hedonistic gluttony is associated with Sufism, and yet food occupies an important place. Followers of the Order began with the simplest menial duties in dervish lodges which always included huge kitchens. After a thousand and one days of service, the novice would become "cooked" and become a full member of the Brotherhood. In other woods, being "cooked" refers to spiritual maturation. One wonders if the Turkish tradition of cooking everything until soft and well-done had anything to do with this association (cooking al dente has no meaning to Turks).
The story of the chick-pea told by Mevlana in his "Mathnawi" is a superb example of this idea. When the tough legume is cooked in boiling water, it complains to the woman cooking it. She explains to it that this is necessary so that it can be eaten by human beings, become part of human life and thus be elevated to a higher form of life. The fable of the chick- pea describes the suffering of the soul before its arrival at Divine Love. The peasant eating helva for the first time symbolizes the discovery of Divine Love by the dervish. There is also the image of God Himself preparing the helva for the true dervishes. In this particular verse, the whole universe, as it were, is pictured as a huge pan with the stars as cooks! In other verses, the Beloved (God) is described as being as tasty as salt, or the Friend (God) has "sugar lips". Wine also represents the maturation of the human soul, similar to the ordeal the sour grape endures. So many mystical meanings are attributed to wine that the name "tavern" stands for the Sufi hospice and experiencing Divine Love is described by the metaphor of "intoxication".
These spiritual attributions are still very much alive in present-day Turkey, where food and liquor are enjoyed with recitations of mystical poetry and dignified conversation. Often these gatherings provide an occasion for people to distance themselves from earthly matters and transcend into spirituality and promises of a better life hereafter.