All souls' wheat

All souls' wheat

Aylin Öney TAN -
All souls wheat Wheat grain has been a matter of life and death for humankind since its first cultivation about 13 millennia ago. The cultivation of wheat grain was a major milestone in the history of agriculture and has been the sustenance of life since then. It has even been a staple food for the dead, strangely, as many funerary feasts include mourning with a wheat berry sweet, hoping for the wheat to sprout again and give birth to second start.

Funeral food remains a subject untouched, but eventually every soul has to cook or eat a funeral food sometime in life. Some cultures have funeral feasts, sometimes even like a celebration, not necessarily about mourning, but a celebration of the soul of the deceased and all the ones who have passed on. Many cultures and religions have rituals in which they bring food to the funeral house, but there are also essential funeral foods to serve to mourners while also providing a sort of sacrifice for the beloved one who is on the start of an eternal journey. The farewell food is usually sweet, as sweetness restores the mood and gives a feeling of well-being to the mourners. As sugar has always been precious, and to offer a last splash of luxury to the departing spirit is an extravagant goodbye, a wise one indeed, as it guarantees warding off curses by disappointed souls. The same funeral foods can also be prepared for All Souls’ Day, or All Saints’ Day, just to keep them pleased and be on the sure side.

The Balkans, Anatolia and the Transcaucasus seem to be the zone where souls are celebrated with sweets made from whole wheat berries. The tradition is similar all over and the recipes are amazingly identical. The last taste for the mortal world in Greece and Greek communities in Anatolia has always been koliva; Bulgarians, Romanians and Christian Gagauz Turks also follow the same ritual and make a similar zito or vareno zhito, while the Georgian farewell is with gorgot; all of them are a sort of sweetened boiled wheat berry. Koliva is also prepared for Ton Psihon, All Saints’ Day. Making koliva takes time. Boiled wheat is pat-dried with napkins until all the moisture is removed and mixed with pan-roasted flour or powdered biscuits to keep it dry, which is then mixed with sugar, spices – mainly cinnamon and coriander seeds – as well as nuts and other ingredients. It is pressed into flat trays and covered with a layer of icing sugar and decorated with sugared almonds, pomegranate kernels or raisins. The initials of the deceased are written on the finished tray with an omnipresent central Christian cross and sometimes floral motifs made with sugared almonds. Even the preparation is a ritual in itself: Nothing, not even the water used to wash the wheat, is wasted, but instead poured out to sea or into flower pots, as if returning life back to the earth. Koliva is distributed in the church or in the cemetery in paper cones and ironically, in the past Muslim friends of the family used to take their share and convert it into aşure. Cypriot Turks make a similar golifa for New Year’s Eve, and distribute it to all in the same manner, just like aşure is distributed in Turkey.

There is a strong link between these mourning wheat sweets and the Turkish wheat berry sweet aşure, the latter also being a mourning food for Alevis, a community that has created a unique synthesis of different sects of Islam and older pagan traditions. Aşure is prepared on the 10th day of Muharrem, the first day of the first month of the New Year, which in a way is like an All Saints’ Day for Alevis as it marks the anniversary of the tragedy of Kerbela, when the Prophet’s grandson Hüseyin and his followers were killed. Aşure, like koliva, is prepared, distributed and shared to commemorate the one who has departed. Aşure in this case symbolizes mourning rather than celebration, but this mourning also includes hope in rebirth and the future. French researcher and Turcologist Marie Sauner-Leroy explains the desired dryness of wheat in koliva by the fear of it rotting and decaying. In contrast to aşure and anuş abur, which are soupy puddings, koliva is dry. So the dryness of the wheat berry is believed to prevent decay and sustain hope in the sprouting of a new life.

The ubiquitous funeral sweet in Turkey is helva, again having a connection with wheat, but in fine-grain form semolina. Many try to draw a similarity between two words, but in this case similarity does not bring one to etymological roots. Helva simply means sweet in Arabic and that’s all there is to it. The term koliva does not come from helva, as some suggest, but from kollybos, as Charles Perry explains: “Originally, kollybos probably came from a Semitic word meaning ‘to exchange,’ such as the Hebrew khalap. The Greek word for someone who made change was a kollybistes. In later times, kollybos meant something that people could exchange that was of less value than any coin, so if you wanted somebody to pay you something more than five of the smallest coins but less than six, you would ask for five coins plus kollybos, which would generally be some grains of wheat or barley. When Christians started making their ritual dish of whole grain, they called it kollybos.”

November will be welcoming both Muharrem and Aşure and also All Souls’ Day. It might be just the time to have a bag of wheat grains and start boiling them to please the souls of our deceased ones and some saints up there, just in case!

Recipe of the Week: The Georgian farewell to the deceased is with gorgot, a wonderfully fragrant sweet of wheat berries. If it is made with wholesome old variety grains and sweetened with Georgian chestnut honey. It is to die for! (Well, not literally). Soak one kilo of wheat berries in hot water for two hours. Drain, put in a pot with two liters of water and boil until it becomes plump and tender. Mix in two cups of ground walnuts, two cups of sugar, 100 grams of raisins and 250 grams of chestnut honey and cook for a further 10 minutes. Let it cool without draining; it will soak up most of the cooking liquid and must remain a bit wet. Serve with more coarsely ground walnuts and lots of cinnamon.

Bite of the week

Cork of the Week:
If you have been following this column and made the chestnut honey liquor recipe given earlier this month, it might be time to open up the bottle. If not, find it now on the HDN website and make it with a variety of honey types as a gift for New Year.

Fork of the Week:
Many people cannot distinguish between different whole wheat berries in the market. Aşurelik buğday, simply meaning “wheat for asure” is chaffed raw wheat, and yarma or dövme is partly boiled and dried whole wheat – in a way, uncracked bulgur. The former requires more time and liquid to cook, the latter is more appropriate for a quick fix.