Food for farewells

Food for farewells

Aylin Öney Tan -
Food for farewells “Como te ves me vi
 Como me ves te versa” 

This is a phrase inscribed over the gate of many cemeteries in the Latin world, reminding that one day you’ll be like the people who you’re about to visit. A similar verse from Quran adorns the entrance of graveyards in Turkey: “Her nefis ölümü tadacaktır! / Every soul will taste death!” What a way to remind people of the chilling reality of life!

November is about death. In the Inca calendar, November is equal to the Lunar month of Ayamarca and the entire month is dedicated to the Festival of Dead. In Mexico the first two days of November are also reserved to celebrate the deceased as “Dia de Muertos,” the Day of the Dead. All these traditions can be seen in one way or another throughout the world, mostly taking place after the harvest. Today is All Soul’s Day, which in many countries means a picnic in the graveyard. Visiting the souls of the departed with their favorite foods and drinks is a way to celebrate their life and memories. Likewise, funeral food is a sweet farewell to the beloved one and is usually universally sweet. 

In Turkey, the most popular sweet dish prepared for mourners after a funeral is helva, usually made from flour or semolina browned in melted butter, then steeped with a mixture of sugar and milk or water.

Anatolian Greeks, on the other hand, bid farewell to the dead with koliva, a celebratory dish of boiled wheat berries. Some suggest that the term koliva derives from helva, but it actually comes from ancient Greek kollybos, the smallest coin, whose name relates to a Semitic word meaning “to exchange.” Georgians also prepare a mourning dish of honey-sweetened boiled wheat berries called gorgot or korkoti for funerals and commemorations. Similar dishes appear throughout the Balkans under similar names: Greek kólliva or kollyva; Romanian colivă; Serbian koljivo; Bulgarian and Macedonian kolivo… All bear sweet hopes of rebirth signified by the wheat berry representing the awakening of nature and the life cycle. The reflections of wheat berry sweets can be extended as far as Chinese longevity grain porridge ba bao zou, laba zhou, or eight jewel rice pudding.

When talking about the life cycle, one cannot help but think of Chinese 12-year cycles of life, which also existed in the original Turkic calendar. Accordingly: Our lives are going through a transition every 12 years, marking a change either for the good or for the worse. Remembering the calendar, there are exactly 4,747 days between today and Nov. 3, 2002. That was the day when the ruling political party was elected as the top party of this country. Since then, it has been in power for exactly 13 years, which equals 12 years plus 12 months. Whether you believe in the cycles of 12 or the curse of 13, either way it seems to be time for a change. Hoping that the curse of 13 will work today, I’ll prepare a batch of halva to bid farewell to the past 13 years and cross my fingers in the hope for better ones to come!

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: Funeral food in Turkey is usually semolina halva or flour halva. Almost 20 years ago I made drastic changes in my life, leaving my career in architecture. I did not switch to food writing at once. I was busy working on my last work as an architect: The restoration of Imperial Mint Building in the first courtyard of Topkapı Palace, while at the same time serving as a consultant to then recently launched Armada Hotel to create their menu. Their semolina halva was merely passable, so I thought of adding a fresh zest. Now it is almost a classic after 20 years: “Portakallı İrmik Helvası,” Semolina Halva with Orange. 

Melt 125 g butter in large pot, add 250 g semolina and 50 g blanched and peeled almonds. Stir over low heat for half an hour until it has a pinky golden color. In another saucepan boil 700 ml milk, 150 g sugar and a small stick of cinnamon. If you prefer it a little sweeter you can add more sugar. Remove the cinnamon stick and pour the hot milk over the semolina, add the grated zest of an orange, cover the pot and keep steeping over very low heat until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let stand for about 20 minutes, fluffing it with a fork from time to time. Serve luke warm or at room temperature. 

Fork of the Week: One of the best semolina helvas in town can be found at Hacı Şerif in Eminönü, Istanbul, or at their original place in the southwestern town Denizli, or at their branches in Ankara, İzmir and elsewhere, or through mail order at:

Cork of the Week: Spirit is the word fit for the day. Soul cleaning, in the sense that having an effect like memory erasing, at least temporarily, all you need is a strong drink. This caraway & pepper vodka is a corpse reviver, and it reminds of the caraway cakes made for All Soul’s Day. Dry roast in a pan a handful of caraway (about 2 tablespoons), together with some black and white peppercorns (about 1 tablespoon), crush roughly in a mortar and pestle, put all in a bottle of good vodka, infuse for a few days shaking from time to time. Enjoy ice cold in shot glasses with a twist of lemon peel.