Seven Sacred Species

Seven Sacred Species

Aylin Öney Tan -
Seven Sacred Species At sundown yesterday it was once again the start of the New Year. The sun dawn marked the beginning of the one-day festival of Tu BiShvat, otherwise known as the New Year of Trees, one of the four Jewish celebrations that are considered as the New Year. Four New Years in a single year, now that really sounds confusing!

Tu BiShvat is celebrated every year on the 15th day of the month of Shevat, which falls either in late January of February. As the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles, it is also always a full moon night. The date marks the awakening of nature; the earth is currently saturated with water – ready to flow into the veins of the trees, enlivening them so they slowly wake up from their deep winter sleep and prepare to bloom in spring. 

Normally, the civil Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in fall in the month of Tishri, the first month of the Jewish calendar, which falls in September. This day is also the start of the agrarian year, as the fields, orchards and vineyards are all harvested so that they are ready to bear the plenty of nature in the forthcoming year. The renewal of the agricultural cycle is also the beginning of the economic year. It’s so logical to consider it the New Year when compared to the insignificant date we celebrate at the end of December!

Another day, which is a new start, is related to husbandry, just a month before that date. It is the first day of Elul, the last month on the Jewish calendar, which is known as the Rosh Hashanah LaBehema, that is, the New Year of Animals. Actually, it would be more appropriate to say farm animals, as the day is the start date of animal tithes, the one-tenth tax compulsory tax given to the Temple. 

The ecclesiastical New Year, however, is the first of Nisan. In Turkish, the word for April is also Nisan due to its roots in the Assyrian calendar. The start of the Jewish Nisan falls either in March or April, which is also the Assyrian New Year. The day, just as the month of Nisan, is about joy and happiness; the spring is now in full bloom, providing a spiritual uplift to souls. Later in the month of Nisan will be Passover, another very important festival. So Tu BiShvat is, in a way, the first celebration leading to those festive days of spring, and can be considered as the first spring celebration, pretty much like the Chinese New Year, which will be celebrated on Feb. 8 this year. 

Last night was for the Seder table; today is for planting trees and enjoying nibbles of nuts, dried fruit or fresh seasonal fruits. At the Seder table there has to be at least the essential seven foods known as the seven sacred species: wheat, barley, figs, grapes, dates, olives and pomegranates. Apart from usually fresh fruits like apples, pears and citrus fruits, nuts of all sorts are also present, particularly walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. At the Seder table, each crop is appreciated and savored one by one, followed by related prayers. The table is not restricted to the seven foods; actually there are more of them. In Turkey, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts and apples are also on the list, with citrus fruits like oranges and tangerines added, along with a “confiture” or candied peel of “etrog,” the citrus which is essential for its highly aromatic scent. The presence of grapes is emphasized with four glasses of wine, dangerously combined with beer! The reason is not to highlight the joy of the day, but be more practical: In today’s world, barley is not as abundant on contemporary tables as it used to be, so the crop is often represented with a good sip of beer, as beer is made of barley anyway…

The day is about the joy of expecting new hopes for the future, so enjoy the day, either by planting a tree for the next generations, or enjoying the bounty of nature, either by munching on fruits and nuts or with a good glass of whatever you find fit for celebration!

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Day: Trigo Koço is the dish for Tu BiShvat. It actually translates as cooked wheat, from a language almost extinct, Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews. Especially in İzmir, it is the sweet of the day and super easy to make, as it is basically just boiled and sweetened wheat berries. It is astonishingly similar to Turkish “aşure,” prepared for the Islamic New Year; in fact, according to Nicholas Stavroulakis, the Jews of Salonika used to prepare “aşure” for the day. This İzmir version is way easier, excluding all the pulses, making use of just wheat berries. Soak wheat berries overnight with plenty of water. Next day, drain the concoction and put it in a pot with fresh water – enough to cover the wheat berries by a centimeter or two. Boil until the wheat berries are thoroughly cooked and plump, adding more water if necessary. Add sugar to sweeten and then boil for another 10-15 minutes. For each cup of wheat berries, ¾ of a cup of sugar will be enough, but if you have a sweet tooth, make it 1:1. 

The consistency has to be slightly runny, but unlike aşure, trigo koço has to be drier. Divide the wheat berries into individual cups and allow them to cool. Sprinkle with cinnamon and crushed walnuts to serve. 

Fork of the Week: Roasted almonds are a favorite nibble for the day, but why not go for something more symbolic? Dried apricot kernels are abundant in Turkey as an alternative snack to almonds, and way more affordable. You can buy raw apricot kernels at any store, blanch them briefly to remove skins, toss them with kosher salt and a slightly whipped egg white. Roast until crisp and golden. No one will suspect that they are not almonds; and it will be a perfect ersatz for Saladikos de Almendra Amarga, another Sephardic favorite. 

Cork of the Week: The day can be ideal to enjoy a glass of wheat beer, especially if you skip the wheat pudding, trigo koço. A good selection of wheat beers is now available also in Turkey, my favorite being Erdinger. Have one glass when peeling apricot kernels in the recipe above, another one or two when roasting them, another one or two to go along the warm nuts. You may add up to seven, one for each of the seven species sacred. After all, we’re trying to bid farewell to winter, and celebrate the New Year of nature!