I often make fun of the eating habits of the Hemşinli people who reside in Artvin Province, Turkey—the group to which my wife belongs—but I am only joking. I make fun of their taste for Black Sea Cabbage, for every meal seems to involve this pale-leafed brassica, and I am often heard running off a list part truthful, part made up. Boiled cabbage, cabbage dolma, cabbage kofta, cabbage soup, cabbage fried with onion, pickled cabbage… It’s a variation on the old yarn about the Englishman’s love for the potato: baked potato, boiled potato, roast potato, mashed potato, potato chips, potato waffles and potato crisps. It is only jest, though, for I have a lot of respect for those who have managed to maintain their traditional diet, warding off the endless possibilities of consumerism. Cabbage and Hamsi—the prince of all fish known to Turks—is my staple diet whenever I go to stay in our village in that forested valley several miles inland from Hopa. Meat is not eaten all that much and I have a feeling that this is how it should be.
They say that the traditional English dish is ‘meat and two veg’, but in fact the meat element only has a history spanning a few hundred years. Cabbage was probably a staple of the English diet for epochs as well. Unbearable to us in our modern age, I appreciate, given our love of meat and variety. Not only are we used to great choice on the culinary front, but we have also come to expect it. Demand it even. We live in a society which has made food one great plank of consumerism and sadly—it seems—British Muslims have fallen for this modern sunnah , adopting the norms that surround us without question.
Vegetarian Muslims are sometimes lambasted by the majority for their abstention from the consumption of meat—some zealous individuals even go as far as to say that not eating meat is haram. Yet it seems to me that vegetarians are much closer to the sunnah of our religion than most of us. In the olden days, wealthy Muslims used to eat meat once a week, often on Fridays, while poor Muslims would consume it on the Eids. Most of the meals that the Prophet ate, did not have meat in them, peace be upon him. My friend who eats meat very rarely is simply following the model of the best of us.
I suspect the reason why some Muslims react so strongly to people who eat little meat has less to do with a concern for the prohibitions of our religion and more to do with the desires of our tongues and stomachs. Count the fried chicken shops along the length of the Uxbridge Road from Shepherd’s Bush in London to Uxbridge out west: these mostly Muslim-run establishments tell us of an insatiable demand. The delightful spread of the generous host for his guests is almost always a lavish stream of birianis and curries, chicken, lamb and mountains of meat-laced rice. The daily filling and emptying of the counters in the halal butchers tells us that we are a people who really do ‘do meat’.
But maybe we should control ourselves. Maybe we should ‘do meat’ a little less. Consider the words of Umar as recorded in the Muwatta: ‘Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.’ Well we see this all around us. The trouble is, our problem today is not just the addiction: what are we going to say about the way our food was farmed, the way the animals were slaughtered, the way it was cleaned, the way it was sold and the way we eat it? Consider the vast acreage of refrigerated units in our supermarkets always fully stocked with plump chickens: now and then, when I really think about it, I find it quite abhorrent. But I guess the small counter of my local halal butcher is not much different. Why abhorrent? I am not a vegetarian; it is just this insatiable demand of ours. I visited a commercial slaughterhouse one Eid and was horrified by the production line they had going there, but that’s how it has to be in a culture that demands meat as much as ours. When I was studying Geography and Development Studies a decade back, one of our lecturers—an expert in water politics—predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be over water. He may not have predicted the intervention of a non-regional army seeking out WMD or oil, but he made a strong case nevertheless. Much of it comes down to our demand for meat: the production of the tons of grain required to rear animals is dependent on the availability of adequate water supplies after all.
In our household, our consumption of meat has lessened slightly. Some days we eat wholly vegetarian dishes, some days an egg quiche, some days some trout or sea fish and, yes, sometimes some lamb or chicken. I started eating very little meat after my visit to the abattoir and suggested we became vegetarian. Over time, the meat returned in larger and larger quantities, until our next attempt to re-evaluate our habits. Latterly, our desire has been to find a supplier of meat that takes the welfare of animals seriously, that slaughters on the small scale, taking the kind of care that is impossible in a production line situation. While we bought our milk and fish from a dedicated supplier, we could never buy their organic meat because it is not halal. So we just found ourselves eating less meat instead.
Fortunately times changes, with a few Muslims now going into small scale farming as a result of their concern about the food we eat. No one else is doing it, they reason, and somebody has to, so it might as well be them. Their meat is obviously more expensive that the supermarket or butcher’s alternative, but if you only intend to eat it a couple of times a week, it needn’t be of concern. There has always been wisdom in the saying that we are what we eat, whether we like it or not. If we care about our spiritual wellbeing, we have to realise that our religion has a lot to say about the food we eat. And if we are sincere, we have to act on it.
In any case: in my humble opinion, Hemşinli dolma is far tastier than its vine leaf equivalent. Yes, cabbage turns out to be far more appealing than I ever thought possible.