Ashura in summer?

Ashura in summer?

Aylin Öney Tan-

It is once again to start anew. It is the time for the symbolic pudding ashura, or “aşure,” the ultimate pudding of plenty. Aşure is a traditional sweet made in the month of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Its main ingredient is whole wheat berries, but there are so many more to the pudding, the number of ingredients can sometimes exceed 40, with various pulses such as chickpeas and beans, dried fruits and nuts added, to make the pudding stand for its symbolic meaning, the plenty. It is rich, it is wholesome. Plenty it is, both in the sense of quantity and context.

In many ways, one can compare it to the rich Christmas cakes and puddings, not a bit similar in shape and taste wise, but contextually the core essence is to add more and more, all dried fruits and nuts, the more the merrier. For me, strangely, it always belonged to the winter months, perhaps because the Muharram month used to fall in winter time in my childhood. Perhaps, it is also all the dried fruits that go into it that make the pudding a winter treat. It is also the contextual meaning that positions the pudding to the start of the new year, all the symbolism is about to call a new bountiful harvest year, that is the reason why the wheat and all the legumes, and all the dried fruits are there, to finish off the remains of the past year, to make room for the new crop, so that one can hope for the best for the new year. That is also the reason that it is customary to make the pudding in big quantities and distribute it to as many people as possible, relatives, friends, neighbors, and even total strangers. Calling for the plenty is believed to be only possible through sharing the abundance, again the more the merrier. Armenians make it for Christmas, call it anuş abur, meaning the sweet soup, the Jewish make a similar sweet called sometimes aşure, sometimes trigo koço, meaning boiled grain, for Tu Bishvat dedicated to celebrate the blooming of the trees in early spring. All these attributions positions aşure strictly to winter in my mind, it is definitely calling for the spring to bloom, the sun to shine again, to start a new season.

As the month of Muharram is like January, being the first month of the Islamic calendar, it makes sense to make a symbolic pudding for the start of a new year. But the month of Muharram shifts by 11 days every year due to the difference between the Hijri calendar and the Gregorian calendar. Now, we are in the middle of summer, so for the reasons mentioned, it is not contextually the ideal time for aşure, it does not make any sense when one thinks about the seasons, and especially the agricultural calendar. At this point, the tradition of aşure does not belong to all Islamic countries, but only in countries like Türkiye and Iran, where continental climate prevails, I believe it predates Islam anyway, similar sweets appear in many cultures going all the way to China.

Ashura is technically a kind of jelly but without the gelatin. In Ottoman cuisine gelled fruit juices called pelte, (or paluze, palude) was a light summer pudding. Pelte was also made with plain water, flavored with rose water and extravagant spices such as musk or saffron. On summer days, the ones made from fresh fruit juices were especially popular, and they were loved as refreshing light and pleasant desserts. Pelte, as a category of sweets, is close to milk puddings, but unlike them, they fell into oblivion. They were mostly thickened with wheat starch, or sometimes with rice starch and the rice itself, and in that case, the most famous and popular one was zerde, a bright yellow shiny pudding which used to be the royal celebration pudding of important days and weddings. Aşure is also made when the essence of wheat, namely starch, comes out after boiling for a long time and thickens the dessert. That is why I associate it with the category of pelte puddings.

There was a particular one that belonged to the elite kitchens and of course the palace cuisine which was called “süzme aşure” literally strained aşure, which was made by straining the starchy liquid. Strained variety was once very popular in the palace, it was made by crushing the wheat and passing it through a colander, that is, completely extracting its starchy essence, to use to thicken the pudding. In that case, it was satin-smooth and silky in the mouth. It was also important for such palace style aşure to be as white as possible. So much so that sometimes milt would be added, though not being one of the traditional ingredients, it was there to accentuate the whiteness. The fondness for white was due to the fact that white sugar used to be a rare luxury material. However, in Anatolia and countries such as Iran, the pudding can be very dark in color when made with grape molasses. However, whiteness was a show of luxury in the palace kitchen, where the most refined and hardest-to-find materials are found. Precious flavorings such as musk and rose water would always be there, so that kind of palace-style strained aşure was exactly like a pelte dessert, a kind of aromatic jelly. I think for a summer version of aşure, go for this light almondy one.

Recipe of the month:

Aşure with milk & almonds

For a summer day, you can make ashura, similar to strained ashura, which does not contain too many legumes. It is impossible to find musk anymore, but the orange peel is a nice touch to lighten the flavor, and it suits aşure very well. While making Ashura, care is taken to complete the number of ingredients to numbers such as 7, 11, 12, 40, or 41, depending on the belief. Best add a spoonful of honey. Somehow the bee took the nectar of at least 41 different flowers.

1 cup (200 g) wheat
7 glasses of water
250 g sugar
2 glasses of milk
100 g raw almonds (soak in boiling water and rub the skins off)
2 tablespoons of cornstarch
zest of 1 orange
100 g dried apricots (diced)
50 g dried white grapes
1/2 cup of rose water

Soak the wheat the night before. Before soaking, wash thoroughly, rinse the wheat with your hands, drain the cloudy water and add fresh clear water. The next day, strain the wheat and boil it with 7 glasses of drinking water on low heat until it is very well cooked. If the water gets too little, you can add some hot water. When the wheat grains are cooked soft and burst open, add the sugar. Once it boils again, add the milk and other ingredients. Add the starch by dissolving it in rose water. Add the orange zest. Boil the ashura again and let the water thicken slightly with starch. Divide into bowls and decorate the top as you wish, preferably with more almonds and apricots.

Aylin Öney Tan,