Pudding of plenty
It is time for a new start with the ultimate pudding of plenty. According to the Islamic calendar, the New Year started on Aug. 20. The Islamic calendar follows the lunar year, so the start of the year, as do all the holy days, and shifts by 11 days every year. The first month is Muharram, and in Turkey, the 10th day is the time to make a sweet pudding called aşure to share with others.
The name aşure derives from the Arabic word aşr for 10, in reference to the 10th day of Muharram.
Aşure is a traditional sweet made of mainly wheat berries with the addition of various pulses such as chickpeas and beans, dried fruits and nuts. It is rich, it is wholesome, and it is plenty. Plenty it is, both in the sense of quantity and context. It is always made in vast quantities to distribute to as many as possible, and it contains a huge variety of ingredients and flavors, the more the better. Aşure is about sharing, in the belief that giving away and generosity will bring abundance and wealth to the giver and the people. In the old times, the dervish lodges and imarets used to make aşure using the cauldrons, and in households it is customary to set the biggest pot possible on fire, yielding dozens of servings to distribute among neighbors, friends and relatives.
The whole process takes several steps. Though it is relatively easy and is not very tricky, it needs a bit of previous preparation like soaking the wheat, the chickpeas and the beans overnight, and then boiling them separately. This is to ensure that each ingredient is thoroughly cooked to creamy softness, as each one of them requires a different cooking time. In reality, the preparation actually starts in the market, as one who is living in Turkey notices instantly. Ahead of the aşure time, supermarkets start promoting aşure kits full of most ingredients ready. When I say most, I mean the basic essentials because when it comes to the number of ingredients, it is almost customary to exaggerate that the more the merrier. Sometimes people keep adding spices to the usual cloves and cinnamon or throwing that last pinch of salt to secure a certain number. Usually, that effort best shows itself in the decoration part, with as many as possible dried fruit or nuts packed topping the pudding, among which fresh pomegranate seeds are indispensable, another symbol of prosperity. Some try to include a certain number of items attributing a particular significance to a number like seven, an auspicious number, or 12 standing for the 12 imams, and even adding up to 40 ingredients, again in hopes of prosperity, the number 40 bearing a significance in all religions. Adding up to 40 is not easy as one would guess, then a spoonful of honey comes to the rescue, as the bee must have visited at least forty flowers collecting their heavenly nectar.
Aşure signifies both death and rebirth; new beginnings and hope; fertility and prosperity. It is also referred to as Noah’s Pudding since a legend attributes its origin to Noah’s Ark. Supposedly, one last dish was prepared by whatever was left in the ship, combining handfuls of grains, legumes, nuts and dried fruits. The future seemed to be grim with no food remained aboard, but suddenly a miracle happened, and the dove with a branch of olive appeared, indicating that the shore was near, and they were saved. Aşure is enjoyed by all ethnic and religious communities in Turkey, each community adopting it to their holy days such as Christmas or Tu Bishvat. Though popular all year round, this is the peak time for aşure. Take your chance to invite luck and prosperity by the pudding of plenty!
Recipe of the Week:
Here I include a recipe that I have previously written for the little anniversary book, “30 Years of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery,” compiled for the 30th celebration year of the Oxford Symposium of Food & Cookery, with the contribution of 30 food writers and researchers, all regular symposiasts that have presented multiple times at the symposium. There are endless variations. Improvise by adding more fruits or nuts, omitting the pulses, or substituting milk for water to create your own version. Yields enough for masses; reduce by half for a house party.
400 g (2 cups) hulled wheat-berries, 5 liters (25 cups) of water, 100 g (½ cup) each of dry chickpeas and dry white beans, grated zest of 1 orange, 150 g (1 cup) diced dried apricots, 150 g (1 cup) sultanas, 600 g (3 cups) sugar, 2 tbs cornstarch, ½ cup rosewater, 1 tsp cloves (optional)
Soak chickpeas and beans separately in double their volume of water overnight. Wash wheat-berries and put in a very big heavy bottom pot with 3 liters of fresh water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Cover and let stand overnight. The wheat will swell enormously with little water remaining. At this stage, some people wrap the pot in a towel or cloth to keep it warm. When wrapped it is said that the wheat becomes the bride (who will eventually swell in pregnancy after the nuptial night). Next day boil chickpeas and beans in separate pots until very tender. Depending on the pulse this may take up to 1½ - 2 hours. They should not have any bite but melt in your mouth in an almost creamy consistency. Drain and discard any loose skins. Add the remaining 2 liters of fresh water to the wheat and bring it to the boil once again. Reduce the heat to a minimum and let barely simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, until the wheat releases all its starch and the water becomes thick and cloudy. The wheat should remain a bit soupy, thinner than porridge. Feel free to add more water, when cool it will thicken more than you expect. Towards the end of the second hour of cooking, add chickpeas, beans and orange zest. Continue to cook for another ½ hour. Add the apricots and sultanas. Mix in the sugar gradually and cook for a further 10-15 minutes. Dissolve the cornstarch in rosewater and stir into the pudding. Simmer for a few minutes more and add cloves. Remove from the heat and pour into serving bowls. When cool, garnish it with the fruits and nuts in a pretty pattern. Sprinkle some cinnamon. Garnishing usually includes walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, blanched almonds, pomegranate kernels, nigella seeds, currants, sliced dried figs and apricots, sometimes a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Serve chilled.