Bitter celebrations

Bitter celebrations

This week, three religions unite in celebration (or non-celebration) under the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus succeeded in one thing definitely, uniting all under the equal threat of it. No religion is exempt, no person with or without belief can escape the fact that life will take time to get back to normal, if ever.

The night of Bara’a Night (Berat Kandili in Turkish) is on the 7th April, the Passover week starts the next day, and forthcoming Sunday is the Easter for the Western church. This month the full moon is on April 8 and that is why Passover starts on that date, which typically begins on the night of the first full moon after the spring equinox. The 8th and 9th nights will be the time to set the Pesach Seder table. The week will end with Easter when the 12th will be the time for Easter lunch.

Tomorrow, April 7, is Berat Kandili, a holy night devoted to prayer, observed on the night between 14th and 15th days of Shaban (Şaban in Turkish), which is the eighth month of the Islamic calendar. Berat Kandili is considered the day when the Qur’an was completely conveyed to Muslims in its entirety. The day is about forgiveness, it is regarded as a night when the fortunes of individuals for the coming year are decided and when God may forgive sinners. Pious Muslims in Turkey normally go to mosques for mass prayers, which won’t be the case this year. There are five “kandil” nights in a year, each having its own significance devoted to a certain meaning in the life of the Prophet, all five nights celebrated with long hours of prayers at night. The Turkish word “kandil” equals to “candle” or “oil lamp.” The mosques are illuminated gloriously contributing to the Holy Spirit, inviting people to gather in the mosques, a practice dating back to the reign of Sultan Selim II in mid-1500’s. Since then, this year the forthcoming “kandil” night will be the first when mosques won’t be open for mass prayer. If not going to the mosque, traditionally families and neighbors would gather for a collective prayer at homes, mostly visiting an elderly relative, but apparently that won’t happen either.

In Turkey Pesach/Passover is usually called “Hamursuz Bayramı,” which can be translated as the non-wheaten/non-dough holiday, as the house should be cleaned thoroughly to remove all crumbs of bread or anything with wheat and other grains or any leavened goods that are considered to be chametz for Pesach. Probably many families will gather around a virtual Seder table via Zoom and skip the practice of cleaning the house from chametz, not the wise thing to do, when the larder is stocked with pasta and all those wheaten products. Using electricity or battery, or any device is also problematic; some Rabbis around the world are openly against videoconference Seders. This Pesach will definitely be different, if there can be a family Seder, probably it won’t be chametz-free.
Easter brunches in five-star hotels in Istanbul have long been a favorite for many, enjoyed by expats and locals alike. A lavish brunch buffet was the solution for big families satisfying the needs of the kids and the elderly like, with egg-hunts or children’s activities on one side, or nostalgia piano playing soft music on the other side. Many patisseries feature chocolate Easter eggs, but mostly the much-sought-after taste is definitely the Easter bread, which is “Paskalya çöreği” in Turkish. It is so popular by all, so much so that it is no longer only for Easter but found in bakeries and patisseries year-round. The Greek Orthodox church will celebrate the day a week later, but nevertheless the community will be having a taste of the sweet bread, this time with a red dyed egg embedded at the center. Apparently, there won’t be a church mass, and any lunches or brunches.

It is more than obvious that the pandemic is problematic for traditional celebrations. People have to keep the distance to be safe; we are all now united in not uniting to observe our convivial gatherings. However, there are joyful ways to celebrate all those Holy days with tastes we can all enjoy. We welcome Berat Kandili with sesame-studded savory simit rings, a treat everybody enjoys regardless of belief. Syrup drenched small round fritters of lokma or semolina helva are also kandil night favorites. For Pesach, older generations, especially in İzmir, remember Uevos Haminados, the brownish slow cooked or roasted eggs, a true Sephardic treat. Last but not least “Paskalya çöreği” will be haunting many with its heavenly aroma. With all the time we have at home, and with all the time we can devote in the kitchen, it is time to remember baking holiday treats.

Recipe of the Week:

This simple recipe is almost a forgotten one, the traditional Easter bread from the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. I’ve got this recipe almost two decades from a family that originates from the city. Mix a cube of fresh yeast (about 20-25 g), 1 tsp sugar and ½ cup of lukewarm milk until well blended and let to work into froth in a warm place. When frothy, mix it with 1 kg flour, 125 gram melted butter, 1 cup milk, 1 cup oil (olive oil or sunflower oil), 1 tsp or slightly more salt, 1,5 teaspoon ground fennel, 1 teaspoonful of each of salt, cinnamon and mahlep (Prunus mahaleb), the latter being the secret ingredient. Mahlep is the tiny minuscule kernel of the wild cherry pit; it imparts a slightly bitter flavor. Knead well and let rise in a warm place covered with a damp cloth. Knead once again briefly and divide into three pieces, roll each piece to about 30 cm rolls pointing ends, and braid, again pointing ends. Let rise another time, brush with an egg wash, sprinkle with nigella seeds and bake at a medium over until golden.