Sufi Gourmet

Turkey’s most respected food writer unites cuisine and poetry

Photography by Lana Šlezić

Mevlana, the thirteenth-century mystic and poet, never knew the taste of a tomato. I know this because Nevin Halici told me, and these are the sorts of things she knows. She also told me that the sweetest peaches in Turkey grow in Bursa and that the honey from Kars is particularly fine. She told me that mothers in Afyon used to lull their babies to sleep with poppy seed paste, that Turks in Konya were drinking coffee three centuries before it arrived in Istanbul, and that the best yufka bread is so thin you can read a newspaper through it.

“Mevlana also never ate peppers,” Nevin says from the backseat of her brother’s car. “Tomatoes and peppers were not popular in Anatolia at that time.” Nevin’s brother pilots the car into Meram, a suburb of Konya, in central Turkey. We follow a dirt road alongside a field until we reach the tomb of Ates-baz Veli, a Sufi saint and Mevlana’s beloved chef.

Nevin eases herself out of the car, smoothes down her jacket with her palms, and asks for my camera. “I will take a picture of you beside the famous chef,” she says. I smile, but Nevin has trouble with my digital camera, leaning too far back to see the viewscreen, the same way my mother does.

We climb the stone steps of the mau­soleum. “The bricks are the colour of fire,” Nevin says. “‘Ates-baz Veli’ means ‘he who plays with fire.’” I follow her inside the chamber, where a gravestone lies shrouded in green cloth embroidered with gold tulips. There is a green turban on the head of the stone – typical – for the graves of Mevlevi Sufis. Nevin tells me that women suffering from fevers come to pray here sometimes. They hope that “he who plays with fire” can coax their own fire away. Most visitors, though, come for the salt. There is a tray of white salt in the corner of the mausoleum. The juxtapos­ition of the salt and the great chef is a holy one, and pilgrims believe that taking a pinch from here to their own kitchens will ensure good health and enhance their own cooking.

I spoon some of the salt into a bag and tuck it into my pocket, then join Nevin outside the tomb. She is speaking with the woman who lives in the adjoining house and who is Ates-baz’s caretaker. Nevin asks if she can unlock the tomb’s lower chamber so we can see the actual ground under which the Sufi chef is buried, but the woman shakes her head. “She is old,” Nevin explains, “and she can’t find the key.”

On the way back to the centre of town, Nevin says, “Konya has produced two famous chefs. The first is Ates-baz. Do you know the other?”

I look back at her. She is smiling. “Is it you?” I ask.

Nevin tilts her head back to laugh, and sunlight flashes from a chip in her bifocals. “You are correct! It makes me happy that you say that!”

Nevin wears a tight, neat turban instead of the headscarves most women in Konya wear, and it makes her look regal. She is royalty, in a way. Nevin is one of Turkey’s most respected food writers and a leading authority on trad­itional Turkish cuisine. She consults with chefs at some of the country’s top restaurants and hotels, holds a Ph.D. in food sciences, and has authored ten books.

I first learned of Nevin, and of Ates-baz Veli, when I came across Nevin’s most recent cookbook, Sufi Cuisine. In it, Nevin recounts the history of Mevlana, known better in the West as Rumi, introduces readers to Ates-baz, and explains the kitchen rituals of the Mevlevi dervishes. Most of the book, though, is made up of recipes for dishes mentioned in Mevlana’s poetry: stewed quince, sour spinach, sweet buttery soup. The result is a remarkable work that is at once a cookbook, a book of ancient verse, and a treatise on the spiritual importance of food and eating.

Food was one of Mevlana’s favourite sources for metaphors. He wrote that his life could be summed up in the words “I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned.” The references to food and drink that fill his poetry are allusions to higher, more philosophical ideals. Those who have not yet turned toward God are unripe fruit. A man aroused by faith is a chickpea dancing in a boiling pot or a fish flipping in a pan. God’s grace is sweet almond helva. For Mevlana, for the dervishes that follow his path and, indeed, for Nevin, the language of food is the language of faith.

Eventually your beloved becomes your bread and your water, your lighting candle and your beauty, your meze and your wine.

I told the maitre’d at Kösk Konya Mutfagi I was there to meet Nevin Halici. He led me to a second-floor dining room with a wood-planked roof and tables laid out with gold linen. Nevin was waiting for me with her brother and two sisters. She stood to shake my hand and invited me to sit. “I will put you on a program to learn about the food of Konya. Tonight we will have Konya ‘home food,’” she said, and signalled for the waiter that we were ready to eat.

The meal began with a typical Turkish salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions alongside paper-thin yufka bread. Then came a bowl of manti, a sort of Turkish ravioli made of pasta so delicate it could hardly contain the lumps of ground meat. This was sprinkled with dried mint and drizzled with yo­gourt and burnt butter. I told Nevin it was the best manti I’d ever had. She nodded. “That is because a woman cooked it. Women cook from their heart.”

A dish of sweet white onions stewed in pomegranate syrup came next, then a bowl of creamy yogourt. Grilled lamb cubes on puréed eggplant, tomato, and green pepper followed. By the time dessert came, a helva made with fresh cream, I could hardly eat anymore. Nevin pushed the plate of helva toward me. “You are young,” she said. “You can eat.”

Because I am Canadian, Nevin told me about her childhood dream of visiting Niagara Falls, but mostly we talked about food. She told me about her favourite restaurants in Istanbul, like Haci Abdullah, whose chefs have a hun­dred Ottoman-era recipes in their arsen­al. When I showed her a picture of my wife, she said, “You are lucky to have such a beautiful wife. You should wake up each morning and make her breakfast.” For Nevin, cooking is the essential expression of love.

Nevin had the army of blue-shirted young waiters at her command; they sprang to our table whenever she glanced up at them. The boys relayed her instructions to the kitchen, brought a little more of whatever Nevin asked for, and cleared away the plates and silverware between each course. I was relieved when one of the servers came to take away our helva – I had eaten far too much – but then the man returned bearing a bowl of tart tomato soup with dried okra. “Something sour should always follow something sweet,” Nevin explained. “It helps get you ready for the next menu.”

Apparently we were not done. Once we finished the soup, our waiter set down a platter of grape leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice. Called sarma, they were much shorter than the stuff­ed grape leaves I’d had elsewhere. Nevin told me of an archaic belief that a woman who makes her sarma too long is not virtuous. “If a woman makes her sarma longer than the tip of her finger, her hus­band can send her back to her father’s house.” Then we had a second dessert of flaky Konya-style baklava. The arrival of Turkish coffee signalled that the meal was finally, mercifully, finished.

The sequence of courses – savoury dishes followed by something sweet, something sour, then another series of savouries – was a typical Konya banquet menu. The whole process could be repeated up to six times. I assumed that such banquets were reserved only for grand occasions such as weddings, but Nevin shook her head. “Just receiving a guest is special occasion enough.

“There is another tradition. A host must give her guest a gift at the end of a meal. It is for ‘tooth rent.’ I borrowed your teeth to eat this meal so I must pay rent.” She pulled a carved wooden spoon from her purse and handed it to me. “In Ottoman times, they used to put a golden chickpea in the pilaf. You only get a spoon.” She laughed. Only my offer to pay for the meal chased away her smile. She would not accept a dime.

Enough, be silent, words cannot take the place of opinions, as pomegranates and apples cannot take the place of plums.

Filtered sunlight drifts through the skylights of the covered market. Below, women lift white grapes from wooden crates, crouch over plastic tubs of tiny cucumbers, and scoop crimson tomato paste into clear plastic bags. Strings of dried eggplants and red peppers hang over shop doorways, ready to be rehydrated and stuffed with rice and mince. Garlands of tiny dried okra seem suited to drape on a Christmas tree. Lemon slices and slender green chilies decorate vats of wrinkled black olives. There are mounds of green and black figs. Fruit vendors split open yellow-skinned plums to show the pink flesh inside.

Nevin’s brother dropped us at the Kadinlar Pazari, formerly the Ladies’ Market, where Konya women used to sell the produce from their home gardens. Larger producers dominate the market these days, and the vendors are mostly men. Still, this is Nevin’s favour­ite place to shop in Konya. She is a celebrity here. The merchants fall over themselves to offer us tart pickles and slices of dried beef pastirma. They wave at her to come and try their cheese. One man gives us a handful of peanuts as if we’d never seen such things before.

I follow Nevin to her favourite cheese vendor. The shopkeeper invites me to dip my bare fingers into a ceramic vat of soft cheese. I scoop out a tiny smear on my fingernail, but the man is not satisfied until I sink two fingers into the cheese down to my second knuckle, and lift a great glob into my mouth. Next, at his urging, I dip my fingers into a vat of whipped butter, then break off a chunk of crumbly cheese that is furry with black-blue mould. I spot tulum, my favourite Turkish cheese, still robed in the goat skins in which it cures. The hairy masses sit in glass-fronted cases under anemic fluorescent light, like freakish exhibits in a sideshow museum.

In a nearby shop, a display case holds a heap of severed sheep heads, still bloody, destined for soup cauldrons. Nevin pauses and points at the gory pile. “All of this would be gone if we joined Europe,” she sighs, speaking of the strict regulations that will come into force if Turkey ever completes its marathon to European Union membership. “It is not fair. They eat haggis in Britain. Why can’t we eat these?” She shakes her head, and I wonder what the European health officials would think of my licked-finger sampling at the cheese shop.

Almond helva fashioned from His walnuts, His almonds, His sugar, does not only sweeten my palate, but floods my vision with light.

Afterwards, Nevin and I make our way to Cemo Restaurant for etliekmek, another Konya specialty. Inside, a trio of chefs stand guard in front of a wood-burning oven. Their oddly feminine red-and-pink aprons seem at odds with their identical moustaches. Nevin waves at them – she knows them all – and they nod respectfully back at her. The proprietor rushes over to greet Nevin and leads us to a table. Nevin insists I take a chair facing the oven and places an order. I stretch my neck to watch as the bakers roll out lengths of dough, spread them with toppings, then slide them into the oven next to a heap of roasting green chilies.

Our first dish arrives in minutes: a slab of thin and crispy bread dough, shining with melted butter, and longer than my arm. It is covered with seasoned minced lamb and a smear of tomatoes. The waiter brings us a plate of fresh parsley, sliced tomatoes, lemon wedges, onions dusted with sumac, and some of those scorched chilies. Nevin shows me how to roll the fresh toppings into the steaming dough, squirt with lemon, and eat with my hands. My fingertips become black from the charred dough and greasy from the butter.

A waiter drops another arm’s length of freshly baked bread; this one is covered with cheese. We are barely through it when a third arrives with just minced meat. Then a fourth with larger cubes of chewy, aromatic lamb.

The waiter calls this last dish mevlana pide, and Nevin wags her finger at him. “It is not mevlana pide. There is no such thing. It is called Konya böregi.” The server nods an apology and backs away from the table. Nevin tells me she abhors how Mevlana’s name is exploited to appeal to the tourists who come to Konya to visit his tomb. “There is a foundation in Konya that wants to change this. It is not good that his name is on everything. Travel agencies. Car repair shops. Beauty salons. It shows no respect.”

I hold up the last piece of Konya böregi. “But wasn’t this Mevlana’s favour­ite food?” I joke.

Now I get the finger wag. “No. His favourite food was helva. Almond helva.” Nevin grins. It makes her happy that she knows such things.

Having tried all the variations of etliekmek on Cemo’s menu, it is time to go. The gluttony has rendered me nearly immobile, but I lug myself out of my chair and follow Nevin into the parking lot. “The day after tomorrow you will come to my house for breakfast,” she says. (I love how invitations in the Middle East are so often expressed as prophesies.) “I will prepare for you dishes from all seven regions of Turkey. But tomorrow you will go out on your own. You will find firin kebab. It is another specialty of Konya. Be sure to eat with your hands; you will fly. And, of course, you will go to Mevlana’s tomb.”

That unparalleled beauty has taken possession of my heart’s kitchen with all its title deeds; and is smashing my pots, pans, plates, platters to pieces.

Ates-baz Veli was embarrassed that he’d burned his toe. It wasn’t the burn itself that bothered him. After all, you could expect a chef, especially “one who plays with fire,” to earn the occasional blister. And it wasn’t the unlikely location of the burn that fazed him. It was the fact that his burned toe was evidence of a brief lapse of faith.

Earlier that day, Ates-baz complained to Mevlana, his friend and master, that there was no wood left to fuel the stove. Mevlana told the chef to place his feet below the stove. When Ates-baz did this, a flame burst from his toes and set the pot boiling, but because he had doubts about this strange miracle, his left big toe burned. Mevlana heard about Ates-baz’s injury and scolded his apparent lack of conviction. Ates-baz tried to hide his scorched left digit by covering it with his right foot.

Since that day, when Mevlevi dervishes engage in the centuries-old whirling ritual for which they are famous, they begin by placing their right big toe over their left. This is a reminder of Ates-baz Veli and that odd day in the kitchen.

I obeyed Nevin’s instructions and made my way to Mevlana’s tomb. The shrine is part of a grand museum complex built out of a thirteenth-century dervish lodge, or tariqat. I paid my admission fee, plucked plastic shower caps from a bin in front of the entrance to the shrine, stretched them over my shoes, and entered the complex where the great poet tries to rest amid the camera flashes. Mevlana’s gravestone is enormous and topped with two green turbans. Pillars rise above him to support a dome made of carved and painted wood. Every surface of the shrine is softly lit and adorned with verses of his poetry written in gold.

I spent only a moment there among the throngs – the schoolchildren, the quietly praying Turks, and the Western New Agers who’ve adopted Mevlevi Sufism as the next fashionable mysticism – before leaving the shrine for another sort of pilgrimage. I found the ancient dervish kitchen in a different part of the museum. For Mevlevi Sufis, the kitchen was a sacred place and heart of the tariqat. Here, everyday labours were elevated to a sort of medi­tation. The operation of the kitchen was divided into eighteen precise duties, which were assigned to individual acolytes. The Master of the Cupboard was in charge of cleaning the cupboards and maintaining the utensils within. This was his only job. The Coffee Grinder only ground coffee. The Purchaser of Provisions did the daily shopping. He hung a symbolic set of tongs, called pazarci tongs, from his belt. The tongs identified him as a Mevlevi Sufi to the market vendors and they would, in theory, sell him goods at a lower price. Every­one laboured under the super­vision of the Chief of the Kitchen and Master of Ceremonies, the spiritual descendant of Ates-baz Veli.

Aspirants to the Mevlevi order would begin their Sufi training in a small alcove, called a saka postu, on the left side of the kitchen’s entrance. They would sit there for three days in silence and observe the work of the dervishes. (The saka postu in the museum’s kitchen is still intact and occupied by a kneeling mannequin.) After his three days of observation, the dervish-to-be had to run errands for eighteen days before beginning his formal apprenticeship under the Keeper of the Cauldron, the kitchen’s second-in-command. This period of repetitive labour and intense scrutiny would last 1,001 days. If an aspirant survived the ordeal and showed the sort of patience and endurance required of a Mevlevi dervish, he would then become a member of the order.

I thought of Ates-baz Veli’s toe as I stood in the doorway of his kitchen. I didn’t know for certain whether this was the original kitchen where Atez-baz worked, or whether the stone stove in the corner was once lit with the great chef’s flaming feet, but I decided to believe that it was. That is the pilgrim’s prerogative.

What a kiss, what a kiss, neither helva nor samsa baklava are as sweet; it even drew milk gushing from a stone; dig not, for the spade has not the power for that.

In Ates-baz’s day, a visitor wouldn’t have dared to enter such holy environs without an invitation. The kitchen had a soul that shouldn’t be disturbed. Nevin is much more welcoming. The next morning, when I visit her, the soul of her kitchen smells of melted butter. She is making mirtoga. I watch as Nevin rotates a wooden spoon in a pan with flour and butter. “You stir until it becomes pink,” she says. “Then you add the eggs.” She tips in a bowl of eggs with brilliant yellow yolks and stirs until they set. “Now we can have our breakfast.”

Nevin, who is wearing a dressing gown and furry white moccasins, brings the mirtoga into the dining room. The table has already been set with dishes from all around Turkey. There are olives from Antaky, shining with pomegranate syrup. Hazelnuts from the Black Sea and poppy seed paste from the Aegean. The mirtoga is a common breakfast dish in eastern Turkey, Nevin says, and she urges me to drizzle my portion with Toros mountain honey. There are also a half-dozen kinds of cheese, saus­ages, fresh herbs, and a dish of mountain butter. “It is a little salty,” she says of the butter. “Have it with my rose-petal jam. It is Mevlana’s rose-petal jam.”

After breakfast, we relax in her living room with tiny cups of Turkish coffee. I mention that I visited Mevlana’s tomb yesterday, and Nevin tells me that before the tariqats closed in the 1920s, the dervishes used to give out food to the community. “It wasn’t just for the poor. It was for everybody. People would come to take it because it came from a special place. Mothers thought the food would give their children intelligence because it came from Mevlana.” The practice ended before Nevin was born, but her parents and older brother ate food from the tariqat. “Because my mother ate, it came to me, and that is why I am so good now,” Nevin says, laughing.

We finish our coffee, licking away the fine grounds that stain our lips, and drive back out to Meram and Ates-baz Veli’s mausoleum. She enters the chamber to say a prayer, just as she did a few days before. She tells me that she visits Ates-baz all the time. I ask her what the place means to her. She glances up at the red stones. “I feel so much I cannot say.” Tears rise in her eyes. “I feel he gives his hand to me.”

For a sampling of recipes click the link for a PDF.Click Here.

Marcello Di Cintio
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of five books, including Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers (2021), which was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year.