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A matter of good taste

· In the Muslim world ·

Be quiet, because the sugared almonds and the marzipan are praying; the marzipan invokes God, the nougat says “Amen”.
Jalal al-Din al-Rumi

The culinary art has marked many contexts of social, cultural and religious art in the Islamic world where the dishes carry with them centuries of culture, art and popular traditions. This is a cuisine forged by a turbulent history, whose food contains the triumphs, glories, defeats, loves and sufferings of the past. The main event which marked the evolution of gastronomy in the area that extends from Morocco to Iran was the spread of Islam: food is one of the great divine blessings and, in a theocentric civilization such as the Muslim one, it was the subject of religious and mystical reflections, as well as being the fulcrum of a material culture based on the exaltation of the pleasure of the senses. The culture of taste is the result of the confluence of traditions and different suggestions; complexity, refinement, and conviviality are its principal components. The enchantment comes from the juxtaposition of flavours, as it was defined by Farouk Mardam-Bey, a Syrian publisher and acute writer of the history of Arab cooking; we list from among his works the Treatise on Chickpeas, which restores its historical and popular dignity to one of the most maltreated legumes throughout the Mediterranean.

In the medieval Muslim world, the symposium incarnates the place where food stimulates the intellect, a manifestation of shared wisdom that links spirit and body. The illustrious history of the Arab cuisine, which had such great influence on European cooking, reached its apex in the Abbasid Empire, assimilated new ingredients during the period of Andalusian domination and was enriched thanks to the blending of peoples and ethnic groups of various faiths absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Cooking could be a profession worthy of note: according to the historical chronicles, “the founder of Cairo was a pastry cook”. In Abbasid Baghdad, a world centre of refinement and culture, convivial banquets were a manifestation of well-to-do court life and of a lifestyle that made the palate one of the main sites of earthly pleasure, a pleasure legitimized by God’s word. This cooking was the product of heterogenous culinary traditions, such as those of Greece, Persia and India, absorbed along the dominated lands through merchants who converged from the Mediterranean and from the Far East with their products and their spices. The apogee of Arab culinary history dates back to an internationalized and cosmopolitan world, open to knowledge and exchanges, in which creativity in combining ingredients aimed to stimulate both the palate and the intellect. Gastronomy became a literary art, so much so that medieval Arab culinary literature is the richest in the world.

Food was an object of interest to the Abbasid upper classes. The caliphs charged people to invent new courses, to dedicate poems to food and to sing its praise at gatherings which became legendary, such as that recounted by Al-Mas’udi, the prolific writer of the 10th-century. One day the Caliph Al-Mustakfi asked his courtiers to recite poetry on various types of delicacies, having all the food that was praised served in turn, until he ended up declaiming verses, no longer thinking of savouring food but only of words.

Take, O connoissoeur of fine foods, two circles of wheaten bread,
Of the type of which I have never seen equalled and remove the crust from the edge of each side,
Until all that is left is soft bread, and on one of these circles place slices of chicken and young cockerel meat, and around them
syrup, exhaling a fine perfume.
And place lines of almonds on top, alternating with lines of walnuts like lines of writing, while cheese and olives form the diacritical dots and mint and tarragon form the vowel signs.

How sumptuous is this description of a filled sandwich, the work of the poet Ibn al-Rumi, when the filling was masterfully arranged in such a way as to recall fine Arabic calligraphy, the ultimate expression of sacred Muslim art. The recipes presented in the food books are enlivened by a philosophy of life whose foundations were the discovery of new ingredients, care and balance in their taste and consumption. In medieval Islam, taste is the greatest of pleasures: it is only in the course of a banquet that the five senses seem to converge in a comprehensive vital process. The approach to the feast, seen as a complete sensorial and cognitive experience, was impregnated by a humanistic philosophy in which there was a balance between dish and word: it is rare to find a tradition which made dishes inspiring subjects for lyrical verse such as the Arab tradition did.

The exquisiteness and the spectrum of flavours put at the human being’s disposal by God also stimulated the appetite of mystics, for whom food was a gift and an expression of divine love. Dhawq, the Arabic word meaning taste, that is, the sensation of sampling a flavour, or, in a broader sense, anything, and evaluating it, is a concept which in the Sufi treatises indicated mystical intuition, namely direct knowledge of God and of the invisible through a sensory experience. The Sufi is called to pass from the exteriority of the forms of the personal experience to the “taste” of divine reality, the source of true knowledge. The tastes of this reality characterize the mystical menu proposed by Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, the Persian poet of the 13th century whose dishes are metaphors for the blazing fire of divine love: “My heart, overflowing with groans, exhales a scent of spit-roast, or again: “My face became acrid like pickles after the departure of my beloved!”. These metaphors seem to be questionably romantic in the eyes of the Western reader but are pregnant with meaning in a culture in which the act of eating is symbolic of spiritual nutrition, and the act of cooking symbolic of the slow and measured formation of the adept who is preparing to come close to God.

An expression used today in spoken Arabic to indicate a good-mannered person, translated literally is, “you are good taste through and through”, revealing how good manners are first and foremost a matter of good taste. In the medieval Muslim world a knowledge of the culinary art and of how to entertain guests at a banquet could not be overlooked by the man with good manners. The Abbassid culinary revolution was also a revolution of practices and customs: gastronomy, the art of knowing how to entertain with class and to be a satisfactory companion at table entered the world of good manners which Muslims must possess if they are to be educated and refined. Hence the religious and literary vein of books on etiquette at table spread, inspired by the idea that an appropriate conduct with regard to food and good manners at table are considered forms of gratitude and devotion since food reflects the dependence of human beings on God. One of the greatest exponents of this was Al-Ghazali, an 11th-century Sufi theologian and author of the most famous treatise on table manners in the Muslim world. According to Al-Ghazali, at table the Prophet’s example should be followed: eating must be a community experience and hospitality is a duty of good Muslims; after all, according to an ancient Arab proverb, “hunger is an infidel”. The guest must be treated with all reverence possible: by way of example, it is preferable that the master of the house make comfortable chairs available rather than increasing the quantity of food offered. Still today this etiquette is part of the behaviour code of Muslims and is the true soul of Arab cooking. Lavishing blessings and praise upon the mistress of the house is part of the protocol of guests: “May your hands be blessed”, to express gratitude to those who have prepared the meal, “your breath in the food is special”, suggesting the Sufi idea of the vital breath which is manifest, in this case, in what has been cooked, “may your table always be prosperous”, and “may you have a long life”, nourishing, once again, both body and spirit.

Arianna Tondi

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