Writing a cook book based on the plate of a Prophet whose main diet consisted of water and dates was, Omur Akkor admits in the preface to 'Early Islamic Culinary Art,’ ‘a tough decision’. Yet, from his rigorous two years of research the culinary historian and renowned chef has created a book of surprise and beauty intertwined.
At a time when our stomachs, like our minds, seek a long-term break from the modern urge to overload them with junk, Akkor’s latest, in his series of cookery books presents historians, people of faith, and household chefs, with the essence of a simpler time.
Dates, lentils, bread, garlic and meat are introduced and combined in ways that would have been recognisable to the sixth century palate. Looking through the bright and delicious pages of foods specifically mentioned in the Holy Quran, it is moving to imagine making ‘Lentil soup with Celery’ or’ Pilau with Basil’ serving them to guests and remembering those who once savoured the same fragrant combinations.
‘Early Islamic Culinary Art’ is a treasure chest of discoveries and a bounty of easy-to-find ingredients and recipes from and for the most modest of households.
May God bless the one who wrote it and give pleasure and above all knowledge to those who read and experience it."
Lauren Booth, Broadcaster and Journalist
Award winning chef and author Omur Akkor is back in Doha and he comes not just to stir up authentic Turkish dishes at W Doha's Sultan tent, but also brings news of a new addition to the culinary community.
In 2013, when chef Omur was last interviewed by Qatar Tribune he spoke of giving cooking lessons to the blind and to parents with children diagnosed with autism, his television cooking shows “ one of which is the longest running in Turkey, and the Gourmand Awards' winning book Secuklu Mutfagi (Seljukian Cuisine).
These days Omur still gives the cooking lessons. He also still hosts cooking shows. But since 2013, Secuklu Mutfagi, originally written in Turkish, has been translated into three other languages “ German, English and Arabic. It is also the theme of his cooking show running on Turkish national television, TRT, for the month of Ramadan.
He has published 5 more books, two of which won Gourmand Awards: Anadolu'nun Eski Tadi (The Old Taste of Anatolia) won Best Corporate Book and Mutfaktan Guzel Kokular Geliyor (Good Smells from the Kitchen “ a Cookbook for the Visually Disabled) won Best Innovative Book and Best Charity and Fundraising Book. He also published Kircicekleri Icin Sofralar, also a charity book of which proceeds will benefit Cagadas Egitim Kooperatifi, a charity organisation based in Turkey which supports the primary education of girls.
Omur, who already has four more books on queue for publication, said he is thrilled to be back in Doha, calling the visit a respite from the hustle and bustle of (his) year."Despite the running around while I am here, I love the energy of the people. I love being in Qatar even if I am here in one of the most difficult months of the year “ Ramadan and the summer heat," he said.
This time, Omur shares with Qatar Tribune the story behind his new book Early Islamic Culinary Art “ a book that focuses on the meals and the culinary culture during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. It contains 91 recipes of the food eaten encompassing 6th to 12th century. Excerpts:
Q: How did the idea of making Early Islamic Culinary Art come up?
A: I come from a Muslim family and I have been very interested in culinary history for the past 15 years. I've always been interested in finding out what was eaten during the early Islamic times. There are not many works that are written about this subject and I was always wondering so I started looking into the hadiths, the food items and the ingredients that were mentioned in the Quran. This subject has been in my head for the past five or six years and we were able to finalize and make it into a book for this Ramadan.
What is the significance of the book in our time?I feel that this book has become one of the most important works of our day that relates to the early Islamic culinary history. There are some interesting questions that are addressed in this book were there kitchens in the houses, what kind of plates were used, were there tongs to cook with. Were there aubergines then? Did they have a drainer?There is also technical information in there including eating habits. From my point of view, I can say how grateful we were in those times and how and how unfortunate it is that we have forgotten that now. It casts light to that time. If you are a Muslim then this book is extremely important for you.
What can people find in the book?We can look at this from two perspectives. One is that the methods of cooking are very different, there are less ingredients. When you look at recipes now, you have a long list of ingredients for even the simplest dishes. But in the 6th century, you can have a dish with only two ingredients. And, there is a major difference between the eating habits of the people then and now. Before they used to eat two meals a day, whereas now its three to four meals. If there were two or three dishes on the table then, that would have been called a feast, now a feast means 20 different types of food on the table.For example in the wedding feast of one of Prophet Mohammad's (PBUH) daughters, they only had 3 dishes to celebrate - dates, water and bread. It shows that people were so grateful for something so small. How hard it is now to make people happy with so many dishes. We always want more.
What are the challenges you encountered in completing the book?My biggest challenge was to find sources on which I could base my findings. There is a very limited amount of work that focuses on this subject. It has been more than a thousand or 1,500 years, and so, there is a scarcity of work that offers culinary insight. We met with many publishing houses from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and their respective religious institutions have helped us find relevant theses on which we could translate from. In the end we had more than 400 sources as foundation for this book.
How long did it take to complete the book?It takes a minimum of five to six years for me to finish a book, especially for culinary history. The Secuklu Mutfagi took more than ten years to compile. I wrote this book three times - the first time didn't feel right so was the second time. So I rewrote the whole thing from scratch.
What could have been eaten in those times? How were their dishes cooked?There is a dish for example, that is cooked by throwing a hot stone inside the pot. You think about how they create dishes - without the hot stove, the high tech utensils and kitchens. When I was writing the book I tried to put myself in their shoes “ hence 5 years to write it.
How was the book written?The book is divided into parts with each part focusing on only one ingredient. The first part is about the date: hadiths where date is mentioned and the dishes that could be eaten with dates. The second part is about olive oil, the third about butter, and the fourth is about meat.
Will it be easy for regular people to find the ingredients for the dishes? Will the cooking methods be available to them?You can find everything easily to make the dishes in the book. For example dates and cucumbers. There is a salad where you ground the dates and mix it with olive oil and use this as dressing for the cucumber. There is also another dish where you cook butter and flour together, and add a dash of pekmez (molasses) in it and eat it.
Where can people get a copy of the book?The English copy is now available in the US, while the Arabic version is being translated at the moment. I wish that they could have been ready by now and I could have brought them with me to Qatar. They will however be done and distributed in the next couple of months here.
Omur shares a few recipes from the book (see page 5). He also includes one or two of the thousand-year-old dishes in W Doha's Sultan tent for diners to try such as the Sahine “ a bread spread made by mixing one spoon of butter, one spoon of tahini and a spoon of honey; and the Date Baklava which is prepared by grinding dates with rose water and almonds, wrapping the paste in lavash bread then cutting them to size “ unbaked contradistinction of how it is made these days.The book has two other interesting features: The plates and dishes on the photographs are reproductions of those used during the Prophet's (PBUH) time. This gives its readers another dimension in their visit to the culinary past. The author also gave a short but engaging narrative of his childhood memory in Kilis, particularly his family's visits to the tomb of Sheikh Mansur Simati - a man who set the table for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and how all these played a role in the work he does now and leading to the completion of Early Islamic Culinary Art.
Flores, Llewellyn (2015, July 5) Qatar Tribune, Retrieved from http://www.qatar-tribune.com/viewnews.aspx?n=EB60370A-4986-4E34-A757-CF5C8E438F99&d=20150705