Food in Islam

by Salma Husain, Food Historian and Consultant, India.

This article was extracted from Salma Husain’s book “Islamic Food with Healing Touch”, Lustre Press Roli Books, New Delhi, 2011.

EARLY HISTORY OF ISLAMIC CUISINE

Before we talk about food in Islam, it is necessary to know a little about Islam and its dietary rules. A monotheistic religious system founded in the seventh century, and based on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, as laid down in the holy book of the Quran, Islam is a complete way of life. As such, diet plays a very important role in the daily life of a believer. There are many verses in the Quran which draw attention to the nature of life and invite believers to carefully study their bodies, their souls and their mutual relationship. As the human body is the greatest gift of God, humans are advised to take care of it. For this reason alone, Islam has prohibited certain foods due to their ill affects and permitted all other pure, clean foods. Islamic dietary guidelines suggest a balanced diet for the growth, strength and repairing of the body.

The Arabic word halal literally means proper and lawful, referring to food that is permitted under the guidelines found in the Quran. Islamic dietary law has selected quadrupeds like cattle, sheep, goats, camels and horses for consumption, along with chickens, ducks, game birds, etc. Both fresh and salt-water fish, with scales, are also acceptable. These are halal, but they must also be zabihah, that is, slaughtered according to Islamic rituals, in order to be suitable for consumption. Slaughtering an animal according to these guidelines limits the pain it must endure. Fresh or naturally frozen vegetables, fresh or dried fruits, legumes like peanuts, cashew nuts, hazel nuts, walnuts, etc., are all halal, along with grains, such as wheat, rice, rye, barley, oats, etc. Milk, honey and any non-intoxicating plants are also allowed.

Haram refers to food that is unlawful under Islam. Some examples of haram include carnivorous animals, pigs (and their by-products), birds of prey and those which do not have talons but flap their wings more often, reptiles and insects. In addition, the blood of halal animals and its by-products is also haram. Like halal, haram extends to the method by which the animal has died, so those that have died, instead of being ritually slaughtered, are haram. Otherwise, halal animals killed in the name of anyone other than Allah, or without the Islamic rites are also considered haram. Alcohol and other intoxicants are definitely haram.

Qur’an and the tasbih (rosary).

Qur’an and the tasbih (rosary).

Prior to the advent of Islam, the food of the Arabs was basic. Their daily diet included dates and either camel, sheep or goat milk, churned into butter and clarified for storing. Meat was a luxury: only gazelle, ibex or hare were hunted. With the advent of Islam, food habits changed and the dietary laws laid down in the Quran were followed. Certain foods of the time are mentioned by name in the Quran, and are known to have particularly beneficial powers. Squash is among the vegetables mentioned by the Prophet. Dried fruits are beneficial according to the Quran and Hadith. The Prophet also mentioned figs and then stated: “If I had to mention a fruit that descended from paradise I would say this is it because the paradisiacal fruits do not have pits… eat from these fruits for they prevent hemorrhoid and help gout.”

The spread of Islam following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 changed the face of the tiny Islamic world. With revolutionary fervour, the Arabs from the Arabian peninsula swept into greater Syria and Persia conquering one territory after another, converting them into Islamic domains, until they had established a vast Islamic empire, spreading right across Asia and North Africa and into Sicily and Spain. Wherever they went they took their culinary traditions with them and adopted those of the conquered territories along the way, so a myriad dishes and flavours permeated the empire.

The new Islamic empire governed by the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs from Damascus is not much known for its culinary art. The majority of the Arabs remained nomads. They knew nothing of husbandry and agriculture, so milk and milk products formed their main diet. Milk was drunk warm straight after milking or thickened in a goats skin —yoghurt was not introduced until after the conquest of Persia. Sometimes unleavened bread was made by grinding the grain in a stone quern, kneading it with a little water and shaping it into rounds. It was then baked on a metal dish heated on dried camel dung or dead tree branches. Very little meat was eaten, and dates were a favourite food.

However, some Arabian dishes, like harisa became as famous and internationally known as pizza is today. This famous dish also travelled to England, where the name was translated into the English of the fourteenth century as frumenty, derived from the Middle French word for “grain”. It became in England a kind of wheat stew boiled with milk, cinnamon, and sugar.

CUISINE OF THE CALIPHS

It was during the Abbasid period, from the eighth to the twelfth century, that Islam was the most powerful influence in the world. The expansion of Islam caused the spread of food that was formerly known to only one region. Rice, for example, originated in India and was introduced to Iran and Syria. Not all foods, however, could be grown readily in every region of the Muslim world, and this necessitated trade. These products were transported by ship or by caravan.

In general, middle and upper class family households had their own domestic kitchen, while less fortunate families had to make do with communal kitchens. Houses of this period had kitchens that were essentially open courtyards, with additional rooms used for storage, cook’s quarters, and the like. The Abbasid kitchen was equipped with two main appliance —the tannur or oven and the mustawkad or stove. The tannur, which was used for baking resembled a large overturned pot. Charcoal was added via a hole in its side and lit, after which, the food to be baked was introduced. The temperature was regulated by opening or closing a vent at the top of the oven. A number of utensils evolved for use with a tannur— the rolling pin, a special poker to pick up food and a metal scraper for cleaning the oven after baking was finished, to name a few. Tannur was used to prepare casseroles and pies in addition to breads. The mustawkad, on the other hand, consisted of a fireplace built to accommodate multiple cooking pots at a height convenient for cooking. Utensils commonly found in the kitchen included clay pots, copper or stone, pans made from iron, skewers, knives especially for cutting meat and vegetables, and mortars.

A caliph’s banquet with music and dance.

A caliph’s banquet with music and dance.

As with any culture, the storage of food was an important issue in Baghdad, Travellers, traders and armies could not always afford to take livestock with them, to be slaughtered when needed, having to rely instead on preserved provisions. Seasonal foods were often in demand throughout the year. The excess food could not be allowed to be wasted, and this gave rise to granaries. The grains were stored in silos or granaries and were protected from various pests. Fruits and vegetables were stored in airtight containers which were sometimes buried underground. Melons from Khwarzam were packed in ice and kept in lead containers while being transported. Meat was preserved by treating with salt and vinegar, but freshly slaughtered meat was preferred.

Baghdad saw great marriages of cooking styles and culinary art reached its zenith during the reign of Harun-al-Rashid (786-809) and his son Al-Ma’mun (813-833), a period in history which is vividly described in the pages of the Arabian Nights and similar literary works. With Mecca as the religious centre and Baghdad as its capital, the golden age of Islam began. It was a time of intellectual and cultural awakening and a rich period for culinary activities. Culinary literature attained the status of an art in the areas of both pleasure and health. The Kitab al-Tabikh al-Warraq, the earliest surviving book of the time, gives detailed accounts of the recipes, their ingredients and health properties, utensils and table manners. Besides recipes, the book contains anecdotes about cooking contests organized by the Caliph.

The taste for special food and sweet things appeared during this period. Before that, spices had been only aromatic and were used in tiny quantities but in great number and varieties of combination. Baghdadi cuisine was rich with many herbs, five or six in one dish, and complex stews, often cooked in the tannur (tandoor oven). Some had Persian names, such as sikbaaj (which was flavoured with vinegar) and naarbaaj (flavoured with pomegranate juice). The dishes with Arabic names, presumably developed in Baghdad, were often named after the main ingredient; for example, adasiyyah (lentils with meat) and shaljamiyyah (with turnips). Some were named for aristocrats.

The royal banquets of the caliphs of Baghdad are legendary for their extravagancies. They amalgamated the peasant dishes of the area and the Bedouin foods of Syria. Lavish dishes were invented, poems praising food were recited and diners ate to the sound of music and singing.

The cuisine of the caliphs was transformed; new culinary techniques were acquired from the conquered people and via trade routes beyond the empire. There came olive oil from Syria, dates from Iraq, coffee from Arabia, chefs came from Egypt, spices from India, Africa and China, but the strongest influence was of Persia.

PERSIAN CULINARY INFLUENCE

Persians have looked at food through three different lenses for many centuries: as medicinal, philosophical, and cultural. Physicians and philosophers considered food and beverages the main factors in reviving the human body. Consuming food was seen as a way of weakening or strengthening human character. The common philosophy of food having a hot or cold essence was linked to the ancient Zoroastrian religion of the area. This philosophy was once shared by other civilizations including China, India, and the medieval West. Culturally food was considered to be an art, providing enjoyment to both body and mind. All of these were strengthened by the advent of Islam.

The seventh century Arab conquest of Persia, which introduced Islam to the population, was followed by invasions from Seljuk Turks and the Mongols. In Persia, Arabs found a sophisticated court with a rich and impressive cuisine, and they eagerly adopted Persian eating habits. Though no accurate record of classical Persian cooking is available, it is clear that the ancient Persians cherished food. For instance, Emperor Darius paid special attention to agriculture and elaborate banquets were held in Persepolis. Walnuts, pistachios, pomegranates, cucumbers, broad beans and peas (known in China as the “Iranian bean”), basil, coriander, and sesame were introduced by Parthian and Sasanian traders. The techniques of cooking them have been passed down from generation to generation.

Feasting in the meadows.

Feasting in the meadows.

Contemporary Persian cooking wears its heritage on its sleeve. Arabs gave Iran the art of making bread, which is still baked in traditional tandoors. However, rice has the place of honour, sometimes containing almonds, pistachios, glazed carrots or orange peels, and raisins; other times finished with vegetables and spices; occasionally with meat. It is often perfected and finished by the use of specially-prepared saffron from Iran and cooked slowly after boiling to have a hard crust at the bottom (tah dig). Rice dishes are considered special by Persians, partly because rice has been rare, grown only in the northern Caspian provinces. Persia’s delicious aromatic rice has won many admirers. Jewelled rice (morasa polow) was described as “the King of Persian dishes” by James Morier, the shrewd English diplomat who knew Qajar Persia well, and wrote Haji Baba of Isfahan, the best comic novel on Iran.

Every meal is accompanied by refreshing drinks called sharbats made from diluted fruit and herb syrups. It is not known when exactly the sharbat came into being, but the earliest records date from 200 B.C. to the Shiraz school of cooking in Persia. The first sharbat is said to have been of almonds topped with lukewarm water. This mixture was strained and chilled before serving in porous earthen containers, which kept it cool. Today, all over the Middle East and Indian sub-continent, sharbats play a very important role. They are cooling, energy giving, healing and pleasant to drink. Fruits, flowers, roots and vegetables can be used to make them.

Food being carried for banquet in Persepolis.

Food being carried for banquet in Persepolis.

A samavar (traditional tea jar) is an essential part of every household as tea ranks with abdugh (buttermilk) as Persia’s principal beverage. It is served in small slender glasses with lumps of sugar.

Lamb and chicken are marinated and grilled as kababs, or mixed into stews called khoreshes with fruit and sour ingredients such as lime juice. Cinnamon, cardamom, and other spices are used in great abundance, along with a multitude of fresh herbs. They blend opposing flavours, such as sour grape juice with the sweetness of fresh fruits and spices. It is these flavours and the passion for fresh herbs, which make Persian cooking exquisite.

Ice creams have been known for centuries to the Persians, through a remarkable system that stored mountain ice underground through the hot months to provide cool drinks. Ice was not even a luxury.

THE OTTOMAN INFLUENCES

In 1258, the Abbasid caliphate fell at the hands of Mongols who enjoyed a short period of glory and were driven away. In the first half of the eleventh century a new scourge appeared: wild Turkish-speaking nomads entered Persia and under the Seljuks. They swept across Persia to Armenia, massacring, looting and raping as they went. The Seljuks occupied Baghdad, Syria and Egypt and then moved on to Asia Minor where they created the first Turkish Empire.

The enormous Ottoman Empire expanded into the heart of Europe from the fourteenth century and produced a new court cuisine in its turn. Under Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-68), the Ottoman Empire became a major naval power, and Constantinople the most beautiful city in the world.

A vendor in Istanbul.

A vendor in Istanbul.

Turkish cuisine has its roots in nomadic life, dependant on agriculture and breeding of animals. Central Asian migrants consumed meat prepared in tandirs (underground ovens) or grilled their meat on open fire. Kovurma are the small cubes of meat cooked in their own fat, salted and stored in earthenware containers and eaten in winter. Meat was also salted and spiced, dried in the sun and consumed whenever required. The first Turkish-Arabic dictionary of cooking methods was prepared in the eleventh century and included the culinary styles of the nomadic Turks. These styles of cooking were easily subsumed into Islamic cuisine and continue to be in use today.

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish cuisine reached its zenith and the Sultan’s courts became notorious for their luxury and the pleasures of the table.

A portrait of Fatih Sultan Mehmed.

A portrait of Fatih Sultan Mehmed.

Trade relations brought new ingredients and, with the expansion of the empire, Ottoman cuisine was influenced by the urban life of Constantinople and the large number of slaves captured in battle. On the occasion of Suleyman’s marriage, free breakfast was served to all: bread and olives for the poor; cheese, bread, fruit and rose petal jam for the middle class. Fruits from different parts of the empire, sharbats of lemon juice and snow, flavoured with honey, musk and amber, were served alongside water lilies together with sharbats made of violet, honey and squares of rice jelly sprinkled with rose water. All this was a mere seventy years after the empire was established.

The most rapid progress in Turkish cuisine was observed during the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmat (1444-46 and 1451-81). Olive oil replaced butter. Sugar replaced honey or grape molasses; almost all kinds of spices and herbs such as fennel, mint, coriander, sesame, rose petals and saffron were being used in Turkish dishes for better taste, flavour and aroma.

The importance of culinary art to the Ottomans is evident to every visitor to the Topkapi Palace. The huge kitchen, distributed among several buildings, had ten domes by the seventeenth century. The kitchen staff—1,300 of them—were housed in the palace. Hundreds of cooks specialized in different types of food such as soup, pilaf, kababs, etc., and fed as many as 10,000 people a day. In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, all the palace cooks were slaves who had been captured or bought. To take advantage of their skills and safeguard their cooking art for the future, a cooking school was established for their children to educate them not only in cooking but also introduce them to the courtly etiquette of dining. The position of the cook was elevated and became a high rank in the courts. It is interesting to note that Koprulu Mehmet Pasha, the Ottoman Empires most powerful sultan, started his career as a cook.

Following the example of die palace, all the grand Ottoman houses boasted elaborate kitchens and competed in preparing feasts for each other as well as for the general public. This is how the traditional cuisine evolved and spread even to the most modest corners of the country.

The first Turkish-born cooks employed in Topkapi Palace were recruited as camp cooks from Bolu, in north-western Anatolia, where the sultans went hunting. It became a tradition that every boy of the age of thirteen would work in the palace kitchen or in the houses of the nobles in Constantinople.

It is said that finest kabab dishes are found in Anatolia, Armenia, and the Caucasus where people in the villages still cook their meals in the charcoal burning clay oven, which are sunk into the ground and called tandir. This is, perhaps, the most original, and in some respects, the oldest method of cooking. It was on the mountain ranges of the Caucasus that the art of cutting meat into small portions and marinating it in oil flavoured with spices and herbs was first developed.

After 400 years of glory, Ottoman Empire fell leaving behind the glorious culinary legacy. Turkish cuisine is still regarded as one of the greatest in the world as its culinary traditions have survived for over 1,300 years, influencing Islamic cuisine worldwide.

SUFI CUISINE

The Seljuk Turks settled down in Konya, from where they ruled Greater Syria. Konya became the centre of attraction for poets, scholars and mystics, and also developed a Sufi cuisine. To Mevlana Rumi the great mystic, food was the spontaneous language of ecstasy. The Mevlevi dervish order he founded in Konya is shot through with food. In the era before, the dervish tariqats (Sufi path) were closed; the kitchen was the heart of a Mevlevi lodge. The chief spiritual adviser was the Asçõ Dede, or Cook Father, who also oversaw the mundane workings of the kitchen.

Mevlana Rumi wrote in Persian, and referred to many specific foods, some of which have survived to the present day, in name if not in every detail of their preparation. Some of his references include chickpeas; eggplant (Mevlana wasn’t fond of it); spinach; onions, garlic and vinegar; wheat and barley; butter and buttermilk; pickles, peaches and pomegranates. Specific dishes he wrote about read like a menu of contemporary Islamic cuisine. They include lablabu, or roasted chickpeas; the noodle dish tutmaj, yakhni, a generic term for lamb stew; kababs; harisa-ye-rasida, a porridge made of grains and meat; boiled ox-feet; sanbusa, meat turnovers; biryani, a dish of rice, meat and vegetables; qadid, or dried spiced meat; tharid, boiled meat or bread and gravy; rice pudding; luzina, or nut candies, jowzina, or sugared almonds; paluda, a dish of milk, flour and spices; kadayif, a pastry made of shredded wheat, nuts and A whirling dervish syrup; and the much-beloved halvah, a generic word for a range of sweets for the most part based on fried flour (reference Rumi’s kitchen).

Legends credit him with the opening posture of the Mevlevi devotional dance. Ateþ-Baz, the cook, had complained that he hadn’t enough wood for cooking, so Mevlana told him to put his feet under the stove in place of the wood, and his toes obligingly emitted fire. But because he had doubted, his left big toe was burned, and he covered it in shame. This is said to be the reason that the Mevlevis begin their sema with the toes of the right foot over those of the left. The tomb of his cook has become a shrine for gastronomic pilgrimage (reference Sufi Cuisine by Nevin Helici).

One of the traditional roles of the dervish lodge was as community kitchen and hostel, providing food and shelter for the poor and travellers. Many early Sufis were “sons of the road” wandering during the warm season, and relying on the grace of God and the spontaneous generosity of fellow Sufis for shelter and sustenance. Followers of other faiths also could count on such generosity, with no questions asked about their religion.

A kitchen in which meals were cooking around the clock was the hallmark of many Sufi saints. The great Chishti Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya was known to entertain large groups of travelling dervishes—even thirty or more—for up to three days at a time. The three-day limit is in keeping with Muhammad’s counsel: “Hospitality extends for three days, and anything beyond that is charity.”

The desire to share food was one basis for the development of communities—the Turkish word tekke referred to a refectory or dining hall long before it became exclusively identified with a Sufi establishment. With the development of orders and communities came a greater capacity to serve greater numbers; but no matter what its size, each Sufi centre had lodgings reserved for guests, and a place of honour for them at the table.

Following the example of their founder, Muinuddin Chishti, Chishti Khanqahs have always kept open kitchens and have provided vital services in public emergencies. For centuries, the Ajmer Langar Khana has cooked and distributed twice daily a barley porridge, itself known as langar.

Mevlevi cuisine also includes Central Asian contributions such as borek, tutmac noodles and the humble flour soup bulamaç aþo. One exceptionally interesting and delicious dish is belh-ozbekpilav, which entered the tradition because it comes from Balkh, Mevlana’s ancestral home in northern Afghanistan. It is made with meat, chickpeas and carrots and resembles what the Turks today call buhara pilavõ, except that this version is enriched with pine nuts and chestnuts. It also contains currants, which probably stand in for the barberries used in (Central Asia.

THE KITCHEN OF CORDOBA

By 718, the Muslims had taken control of most of Spain. In die tenth century, the great Andalusian city of Cordoba had a population of half a million. It had lighted streets, libraries with hundreds of thousands of volumes, some 700 mosques and 900 public baths. The homes of the wealthy had fountains, plumbing and running water. Cities of the Near East, North Africa, and Moorish Spain were supported by elaborate agricultural systems which included extensive irrigation based on the knowledge of hydraulic and hydrostatic principles, some of which were continued from Roman times. Spain in turn transmitted these to the rest of Europe along with many agricultural and fruit-growing processes, new plants, fruit and vegetables. These new crops included sugarcane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, and saffron.

Drink vendors were everywhere, proffering tea perfumed with fresh mint, a dash of rose water or orange blossom. Meatballs called miraga, fried fish and a kind of cheese cake called almojabana were noisily hawked at food stalls. The marketplaces were full of vegetables, fruits, lamb and veal meat, a variety of game and fish, particularly tuna, shad and sardine, and literally thousands of aromatic herbs and spices.

In the court kitchens of Cordoba and Granada, cooks could now produce the dishes of high Islamic cuisine. There were the pilaus, made by frying rice or thin wheat noodles and then simmering them in an aromatic liquid until it was fully absorbed. Another family of dishes consisted of delicate dumplings (albondigas) made of meat pounded with seasonings. And there were the most characteristic meat dishes: meltingly tender spicy stews. Flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices, these stews were cooked in earthenware pots nestled in circular holes in charcoal-heated masonry bench stoves. Some were green with spinach and coriander. Others were golden with saffron. And the most complex were flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, almonds and raisins and thickened with eggs or bread crumbs. Other great creations of the Muslim kitchen were based on clarified white sugar. Sweetened drinks (sharbats) were flavoured with ground nuts, citrus fruits and pomegranates. Jams were made of rose petals, oranges and apricots, and dense pastes of quinces. Figurines were modelled from a white paste of sugar mixed with gum (alfenique). And a wide variety of confections such as marzipan was created from sugar and nuts.

MUGHAL CULINARY INFLUENCE

In 1526, Babur established the Mughal dynasty in India and his successors ruled Hindustan for 300 years. They left behind a legacy of food, which has not lost its colour till date. This era saw a flowering of native poetry and art, and its rarified cooking, with rich sauces and pilafs strewn with nuts and dried fruit became the foundation of the Mughal cuisine of northern India. They brought with them the exotic heritage of Persian and Turkish cuisine and influenced both the style and substance of Indian food, enriching native cuisine with nuts, raisins cream and butter. They added to the melting pot of Indian cuisine with new exotic dishes like paththar kabab, haleem, aash, various kinds of pulaos and kababs. They also had a refined and courtly etiquette of sharing food in fellowship.

Preparations for a Mughal banquet; National Museum of India.

Preparations for a Mughal banquet; National Museum of India.

These emperors were patron of gastronomy and their patronage took culinary art to its utmost zenith. With the fall of the Mughal Empire, the cooks tried to find refuge with other courts and spread their expertise across the sub-continent, accounting to some extent, for the similarity of food across Pakistan, Bangladesh and India even today.

THE ISLAMIC FEAST

Like any other religion, the time of the year plays a very important role in the life of a Muslim. The Islamic calendar or Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar based on twelve lunar months in a year of 354 or 355 days, used to date events in many Muslim countries, and used by Muslims everywhere to determine the proper day on which various festivals fall.

Ramadan refers to the ninth month in the Muslim calendar. Every Muslim is expected to fast during the day for the entire lunar month. During the blessed month of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking.

Fasting during Ramadan is strictly adhered to in countries where there’s a large Islamic population. During this month, keeping in mind the season, special dishes are prepared for breaking of the fast (iftar), which is often an elaborate affair. Similarly, Eid-ul-Fitr, the day marking the end of the fasting month is spent eating and drinking special dishes, which are made only on this big day. The focus at Eid celebrations is a huge family meal of favourite dishes like biryani, pulao, qorma, sheer khurma in India and, in the Arab world, gouzy which is spectacular and much-feted dish of stuffed roasted lamb with a highly seasoned pulao in which roast chickens nestle.

It is difficult to encompass the entire culinary sphere of Islamic civilization, which covers a vast landscape with endlessly varied tastes and abundance and scarcity being locked in perpetual rivalry.

Breaking of fast (iftar) Corbis.

Breaking of fast (iftar) Corbis.

Many countries have contributed to the enrichment of Islamic cuisine, keeping in mind the dietary laws of Islam. Each country has its own flavour, its own ingredients and its own culture. The cooking is different in every town and village, indeed in every family. There are rural foods and foods which belong to the desert, the mountains, the plains or the sea coast. Though the cooking differs with each place, there are many general characteristics which these foods and all the countries share.

Islamic cuisine employs a very sensual kind of cooking, using herbs, spices, and aromatics generously. Certain methods like slow cooking over charcoal or long, slow simmering in sun glazed covered pots, or baking in a tandoor are typical of Islamic cooking. Many Muslim countries have common elements in their cuisine, serving stuffed vegetables, meatballs, scented rice puddings, pies wrapped in paper-thin pastries or leaves, and fritters soaked in syrup.

In short, the rich heritage of Islam has given the world a unique legacy in the form of its cuisine.