Aşure is a delightful yet odd Turkish sweet, and perhaps difficult for those unfamiliar with the dessert to understand. It fully represents the bounty of nature, made of boiled wheat grains plus a variety of pulses like chickpeas and beans, dried fruits like raisins, sultanas, currants, apricots, figs and finally nuts like walnuts, pine nuts and almonds. Though it sounds more health soup than treat, aşure is a legendary pudding that is surely worth exploring.
A history as legendary as Noah's Ark
Aşure also has a deep-rooted history, probably dating back to times when wheat was first cultivated in Upper Mesopotamia, near Göbeklitepe, Urfa. In Turkey, the legend of Noah’s Ark remains the most popular story surrounding the dish’s invention. As the legend goes, Noah and his followers, facing starvation, prepare one last meal with whatever sundry grains, pulses, dried fruits and nuts that are left on board. Upon sharing this last dish, a miracle happens; skies clear and the ark reaches ground. Clearing the ship’s pantry supposedly explains the unusual combination of staples. It also gives a clue to why, in rural Anatolia, the dish is also referred to as şükran çorbası or thanksgiving soup. The dish is a celebration of the miraculous salvation of the ark’s crew and represents a sign of community, peace and a bright new future.
The celebratory significance of aşure is hidden in its indispensable main ingredient: wheat. The significance of wheat in Anatolian rituals is diverse. Since it was first cultivated, wheat has been a symbol of fertility, prosperity, birth, rebirth and growth in Anatolian civilizations. The Greek goddess Demeter is always depicted with a wheat stalk in hand, as are many other fertility goddesses of Anatolia, like her Hittite predecessor Kubaba and Roman successor Ceres, the mother of agriculture and grain crops. Celebratory wheat dishes, either sweet or savory, mark the seasonal changes and the rites of passage including birth, death and marriage.
Aşure itself marks the first month of lunar Islamic calendar, the Muharrem. The name derives from the word ʿāshūrāʾ, which means tenth in Arabic, indicating the date on which it is traditionally prepared, the 10th day of Muharrem (celebrated on October 11 this year). This date also marks the tragedy of Kerbela, when the Prophet’s grandsons were killed, making it a day of mourning for Turkey’s Alevi Muslims. The first ten days of the Muslim New Year is reserved for fasting, and the tenth day is for feasting on aşure.
Sharing with others is an important aşure ritual. It is always prepared in vast amounts and distributed to neighbors, friends and even strangers; thus there is always a bizarre pudding-traffic during the aşure period, the sweet concoction swapped continuously between neighbors. Armenians name the almost exact equivalent as anuş abur, which literally translates as sweet soup. No New Year table or Christmas is complete without a pretty bowl of anuş abur decorated with pomegranate. Pomegranates, another symbol of fertility and prosperity in Anatolia, is inseparable with both sweets, not as an ingredient but as a symbolic decoration to adorn the festive pudding with its jewel-like presence.
Be merry around a wheat berry
Wheat appears in various other ways, always marking a certain day of the year, or a rite of passage. The Greek dead are waved farewell with koliva, a dry version of aşure, in hope for the rebirth of the dead. The joy of a first baby tooth in Turkey shared by diş buğdayı (tooth wheat), boiled and sweetened wheat berries that symbolize growth. In Turkic tradition, springtime is celebrated with a sweet paste made of sprouting wheat called sümenek, a potent potion acting like an aphrodisiac. The awakening of nature and flowering of fruit trees is celebrated with kofyas ( also called trigo koço by the Sephardic Jews in Tu b’shevat) which simply means cooked grain in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language. Unmarried Orthodox Christian girls seek fortune in sweet boiled wheat berry, berbara, on St. Barbara Day on December 4. And, no wedding is complete without the fertile dish of keşkek, a wheat and meat stew.
Balkan, Eastern European, Russian and Caucasian practices are astonishingly similar. Kutya, kutia, vareno zitho, and gorgot are only a few to name among the wheat dishes or sweets that have either a significance with death, birth, or renewal. The variations on all these wheat dishes and related rituals are endless. One thing remains constant of the communities and cultures that take their roots from Anatolia. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, wheat stands for hope for the future and a profound belief in the renewal of the life cycles.
Aşure is definitely about sharing. In that respect, the usual bowl of aşure in the pudding shop is worth another look. It might just be the time to take the toil of making a good batch of aşure, and share its prosperity. Its significance is fit for any time, from All Soul’s Day at the start of November, through to Christmas and New Year. With a good splash of rose water, topped with a handful of pomegranate seeds, it is the most festive pudding one can put on the table.
Editor's note: The original article was published in the November/December 2016 issue of the magazine and has been reformatted in its online version.