Book Review

  • Issue 119 / September - October 2017



    Early Islamic Culinary Art

    Lawrence Brazier

    How do we alleviate the harshness of our daily routine? One may contend that the true purpose of art is to offer readers, viewers, and listeners the opportunity to forget themselves, which means a quietening of the mind, perhaps even permitting wonder to arise. This is what true artists, creating from their souls, give us.


    In this same spirit, here is a work for lovers of books, fine art – and food! Early Islamic Art – based on Prophetic traditions – is a joy to have and behold.


    M. Omur Akkor is a practiced chef and author of note. His books on the culinary traditions within the Islamic canon have been deservedly honored with a number of awards.


    The recipes in this book are often astonishingly simple, yet they manage to be magnificent. They’re accentuated by dazzling color illustrations throughout the 277 pages of the book. As a writer and ceramist, and also as one who appreciates alleviation from the self, something affirming arose from my soul when this book fell to my hand. 


    Together with the food, shown here in gorgeous color, there are full-page photographs of early Islamic ceramic table wares. The designs and patterns, often decorated with marvelously stylized calligraphy of the plates, bowls, and dishes, are purely within the tradition. There are two pictures, among many others, of 10th-century dishes from East Persia that are breathtaking in their simplicity and effect. In the preface it is noted that all the plates presented in the book “have been selected after two years of research from the collections of museums within the Islamic geography and belong to the era between the 6th and 12th centuries. The selected plates were specially made for this book in the workshop of Frig Ceramic within a two-year time span.”


    We are offered texts pertinent to early Islamic culinary culture, as well as descriptions of kitchen utensils and foods mentioned in the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions. There are delightful quotes, such as the following from the blessed Prophet, who apparently ate very little and was known to have often subsisted on dates and water, and who maintained that “…the food for one is sufficient for two, and the food for two is sufficient for four.” The very last recipe in the book is called bashi. It is recorded that the Messenger of God also ate “bashi,” in his characteristic modest manner, like this: “coarsely milled barley, one cup of water. Swallow them together.”


    Nevertheless, the recipes, all based on the food mentioned in the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions, will bring to blossom one’s palate. Hopefully, we will have the grace to resist a second portion – for it was another mystic who said that one should never attempt to enjoy a pleasure more than once at a time 


    One’s wife, who has yet to be defeated in the kitchen, gazed thoughtfully at haniz. The recipe requires, I quote, “1 goat, salt, half a kilo of clarified butter, flatbread, 1 medium-sized onion. Rub the goat in salt and place it in a copper basin, and cook overnight. Serves 15.”


    “We could kill the goat and offer it to any passing Bedouins,” I suggested. “We would have a grand feast, inquire politely after the Bedouins’ wells, both water and oil, and pray that their flocks increase.”


    “Goats,” she said, “can be little darlings. I’m unsure about this one.”


    Quite naturally, there is a prevalence of lamb recipes in the book. We were attracted to tafayshal, which requires cracked wheat (bulgur), lumps of fatty lamb, water, black pepper, and salt. It is all done in under one hour. Washiqa, on the other hand, requires only lamb shanks, water, and salt, all boiled for three hours. Shiwa doesn’t even require water: it needs only lamb meat, salt, and black pepper.


    Perhaps the nicest salad in the book is Shiraz bi-bukul, which is a medley of fresh mint, celery, leek, mild cream cheese, chopped walnuts, crushed mustard seed, and salt. Preparation takes about five minutes.


    There are soups galore; mint tea, of course; and terrific sweet things. The quince-with-molasses recipe would be a challenge to resist, although the blessed Prophet maintained that quince soothes the heart. Sirkanjubin is a refreshing drink comprising, water, vinegar, and honey. Fuqqa comprises musk, rose water, honey, water, and ice. It must stand for an entire day before serving.


    The Prophet, blessed be his name, was averse to garlic and onions and suggested they were to be first cooked to remove any untoward odor. Our gifted author has added recipes accomplishing the same.


    It is sufficient to say we are enchanted by this book. It will test our spiritual endeavors, but Mr Akkor, bless him, has also written a book titled Delicious Dishes for Ramadan. Thus, our evenings will be doubly blessed.

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