Wheat is wealth
AYLİN ÖNEY TAN
This morning, there will probably be countless bowls of leftover boiled wheat pudding cups in many kitchens around the Kurtuluş and Pangaltı neighborhoods of Istanbul, in the kitchens of Armenian families and their neighbors. The pudding is called anuş abur, literally translated as “sweet soup,” traditionally made for Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 6 every year by Orthodox Armenians. Some families that celebrate the Catholic Christmas make it on Dec. 24 and have it on New Year’s Eve. Practically for all Armenian communities of Istanbul, the last week of December and the first week of January is definitely anuş abur time, no doubt about it.
That would also be the case in many kitchens all over Turkey during Muharrem, the first month of the Islamic calendar that shifts by 11 days annually, so it moves through the year over the time, sometimes falling in summer. That wheat pudding is called aşure, which is practically the same, with a few extra ingredients and variations such as the addition of boiled chickpeas and beans.
In both puddings it is the wheat that is the indispensable crucial ingredient; actually it is what the tradition is all about. Wheat, since its first cultivation in Anatolia, has been the symbol of fertility and plenty by all the civilizations that made Anatolia their home. It is obligatory to share anuş abur so there is a lot of bowl exchanging during the festive period. For Armenians of Turkey, it is like the Christmas pudding. It is further decorated with pomegranate seeds, another symbol of fertility and plenty. It must be noted that crushing a pomegranate on the doorstep of the house is believed to bring wealth to the house in the coming year. There are zillions of pomegranate seeds that splatter around like confetti in the streets when the clock hits midnight.
Coming back to wheat, as wheat represents money and the bounty of land, one has to consume the previous season’s stock to make way to the new crop of the forthcoming year. Native to the Fertile Crescent, wheat was first domesticated in Neolithic times. Since then a basic source for the sustenance of life, it became a symbol of fertility, prosperity, birth and rebirth for all the peoples of the region. Wheat has always been related to deities, so it is no surprise that it was adopted by both the early Christian and the Islamic traditions in Anatolia. In earlier cultures, the Greek goddess Demeter is depicted with a wheat stalk in hand, as are many other fertility goddesses, like her predecessor Hittite Kubaba and Roman successor Ceres, the mother of agriculture and all grain crops. As cultivation of wheat spread to other lands, its cultural significance, too, was carried along. Celebratory wheat dishes mark seasonal changes, the rites of passage, religious holidays and other important occasions in Anatolia, Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Cypriot Turks make golifa, just plain boiled wheat with various mixed seeds, pomegranates and nuts for the New Year. Russian Christmas and New Year is marked with sochivo, whereas similar kutya or kutia is traditional in Ukraine, Belarus and some parts of Poland, all incorporating poppy seeds as symbols of abundance; perhaps they do not have the colorful pomegranate.
Wheat is wealth, sacred for peoples of Anatolia that extends cultures and religions. It is a wealth of humankind, so make your celebrations with wheat!
Recipe of the Week
Though it takes a long time (sometimes days!), making anuş abur is super easy, at least much easier than aşure, which requires more ingredients and the extra hassle of boiling the pulses. This recipe is from Takuhi Tovmasyan, the author of a wonderful memoir-cookbook on Armenian cookery in Turkey. This amount will feed a whole neighborhood, so if you don’t have a crowd to share with, deduce the amount by half. Wash clearly 500 grams of wheat berries with a few changes of water and let them soak in plenty of water for four to five hours or overnight. Drain and wash again and put into a pot covering the wheat with plenty of fresh water covering the grain by at least two or three inches. Meanwhile, let soak 250 grams each of dried sultanas and apricots cut dice-sized pieces in fresh water in separate bowls. Bring the wheat to a boil and let simmer half covered over slow fire until the wheat berries are totally cooked, swollen to the extent that are almost burst open. This may take up to two-three hours, depending on the variety of wheat. If the water reduces too much, add more hot water, the mixture should always have soupy cooking liquid. Take the wheat from the heat, let cool a bit and cover warmly with a cloth and keep aside for a few hours or even overnight again, so that the wheat berries really soak the cooking liquid and swell. Return the pot to the heat, add the soaked sultanas and apricots and bring back to boil. Let simmer until the sultanas are plumb and round, adding hot water if necessary, to retain the thick but soupy consistency. Loosen 100 g potato starch (or arrowroot) in a glass of water and add to the mixture to thicken the pudding stirring constantly. When the pudding thickens like custard, now you can add the sugar, pour in 1 kg (or less for your taste) and a generous pinch of salt, mix in to melt, stirring for a few more minutes. Add a ladleful of rosewater and take from heat. Divide the pudding into several big serving bowls to distribute to neighbors and individual cups to serve at home. Decorate bowls and cups with walnuts and pomegranate seeds and sprinkle with cinnamon. If you make the pudding for the New Year, you may also write 2019 with a trail of cinnamon powder.
Cork of the Week
Now that it’s cold and most of the country is under snow, and even Istanbul is taken by cold weather, it is time to switch to stronger booze. When we say booze, of course there is always the supposedly non-alcoholic boza, the grain fermented drink, which is much loved in Istanbul when the cold days set in. Drinks based on grain fermentation are the age-old discoveries of humankind, pre-dating any grape fermented or distilled drinks. Beer was probably the first of all drinks, of course not in its current clear state, but in a cloudy archaic form, which actually was probably an overly fermented boza, also the origin of the word booze. Let’s continue to celebrate the New Year by grain-based tipples, swap your beer with whisky.