Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
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In the Kitchen
Detail from Life in the City, Persian, 1540. Click for larger image.

With such an abundance of food-related metaphors in the writings of its Pir, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, it is not surprising that the Mevlevi Order traditionally valued the role of the head cook (Asci Dede or Sertabbah), second only to the Shaikh in rank. When the Shaikh died, more often than not it was the sertabbah who succeeded him. The Sertabbah had overall responsibility for training new initiates, who would labor 1,001 consecutive days in service to the community. The last portion of this period was spent in the kitchen, after a ceremony in which the sertabbah presented the initiate to the Shaikh. In time, a Mevlevi dervish might serve as keeper of the cauldron (Kazanci Dede), sherbet-master (Serbetci Dede), table-setter (Somatci), coffee-maker (Iceri Meydancisi), coffee grinder (Tahmisci), or water server (Saki). The Bektashi cook (Asci Postu) held a status similar to the Mevlevi sertabbah. Kitchen-related posts include the Baker (Etmekci Postu); keeper of the cellars (Kilerci Postu); coffee-maker (Kahveci Postu). Other services are performed by the Sofraci, who sets the table; the Ibrikici, who pours water; and the Sakii Meydan, or cupbearer.

This high regard for the station of the cook, along with Bahauddin Naqshband's concern for the cook's level of concentration and emotional state, and the Ikhwan al-Safa's reference to the connection between states of mind and states of body, all point to the essential nature of the processes which the cook shepherds and embodies.

The cook must be aware of the nature of the transformation of the coarse material of food into a finer state. In cooking the elements are marshaled to act upon the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, maximizing their potential for human nourishment, for

He changes every substance into Soul.
The Crows using their Wings to fan the Fire with which they kill their Enemies, the Owls. Syria, 14th century. Click for larger image.

This only happens with divine permission.

Air, earth, water, fire are His servants,
Dead to you and me, but alive to their Master.
Before Allah, fire writhes day and night,
always ready to do His bidding.

The cook must "have a mouth to taste the food." He or she must exercise the faculties of insight and discrimination, and be aware of the needs of the entire community. The cook must consider the qualities of foods and arrange them in combinations that promote balance and harmony in those who eat them, so that the nourishment of the body supports the nourishment of the soul. The cook must pay heed to the season, weather and time of day when food is to be served. Flavors, aromas, colors, textures and appearance must be appropriate and aesthetically pleasing. Equally important are the subtle attributes of foods — their heating or cooling, expanding or contracting effects; their influence on emotions; their tendency to promote vigor or calm, groundedness or etherealness; and their symbolic associations.

The results of this work enter the bodies of other human beings, and are transformed into energy and vitality, thought and spirit. It is a process requiring attention, discretion, creativity, presence, love, and patience — patience that accepts the manner in which all expressions of God unfold.

Be a skillful cook — let the kettle boil slowly,
For stew boiled in a great rush is of no use...
Why is a child created over nine months?
Because the King acts gradually.
Why was Adam created over forty mornings?
Because little by little, God was perfecting that clay.
You foolish one, you are rushing ahead —
Only a child, you make yourself out to be a sage...
But where is the spiritual warfare and combat to sustain you?

The alchemy that takes place in the kitchen mirrors that which takes place in all creation.

Pharmacist preparing drugs, from a 7th/13th century Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides Materia Medica. Click for larger image.
You have transmuted one handful of earth into gold,
another into the Father of humanity.
Your work is the transmutation of essences
and the showing of generosity.
My work is mistake and forgetfulness and error.
Transmute my mistakes and forgetfulness into knowledge.
I am full of heat and passion; make me patient and forbearing.
You have made bread from the blackest earth,
You have made dead bread into life...
The heart's eye contemplates spiritual realities
and sees in this world of form an unending alchemy.
This body, this patched garment without stitches,
holds its form through the transmutation of essences
and Your all-embracing elixir.

Sufi rituals evolved in recognition of the sacredness of the work of the kitchen. The Kara Kazan, or giant cauldron, of every Bektashi tekke is treated with great reverence and is reserved for special occasions only. The workday at the Istanbul Qadiri dergah kitchen begins with ablutions and recitation of the Fatiha, led by the recitation of a prayer by the head cook. This prayer ends with the invocation "Hu" — the non-gender-specific pronoun used only to refer to Allah.

Allah, Allah, zadallah, kesirallah, berekat-illah
Vakt-i serifler hayrola, hayirlar feth ola…
Berekatillah Elhamdillah, pir askina
Hu diyelim, HU!

Allah, Allah, the sustenance of Allah
the benevolence of Allah, the blessing of Allah...
By the grace of God, praise be to God and our beloved Pir.
Let us say HU, HUUUU
Ascent of the Prophet to Heaven, Persian, 1550. Click for complete painting.

While preparing meals, Jerrahi cooks traditionally recite the prayer At-tahiyyat, the conversation held between Muhammad and Allah during the Miraj, the Heavenly Ascent, so that this heavenly blessing might be brought down to the kitchen and perpetuated.

In Mevlevi tekkes, when a meal was ready the keeper of the cauldron would uncover it and recite:

May its cooking be sweet;
May God render it bountiful.
By the breath of Hazrat-i-Mevlana [Rumi],
by the mystery of Atesbaz-i-Veli [Rumi's cook],
let us all say Hu.

Following the meal, the dervishes would rise one at a time, and before leaving, bow at the threshold of the kitchen. Such customs recall the Latin word for hearth — focus — and the English definitions of focus as a point at which rays of light converge, a state of concentration and clarity. This etymology illuminates the traditional role of the hearth as the literal and symbolic focus of a spiritual education.