Aşure is a delightful—yet odd—Turkish sweet that fully represents the bounty of nature. Made of boiled wheat grain, plus a variety of pulses, dried fruits, and nuts, it sounds more like a health soup than a treat. However, it is a legendary pudding in more ways than one, filled with an ancient significance as well as delicious goodness.
By Aylin Öney Tan
AAşure has a deep-rooted history, probably dating back to times when wheat was first cultivated in Upper Mesopotamia, near Göbeklitepe, Şanlıurfa. 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 grain, 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 ingredients. 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 salvation of the ark’s crew and represents community, peace, and a bright future.
The glory of wheat
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 seasonal changes and rites of passage including birth, marriage, and death.
The word “aşure” marks the first month of the lunar Islamic calendar, Muharrem. The name derives from the word ashura, 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 Karbala, 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 are reserved for fasting, and after this it is time 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. You will also rarely find two recipes exactly alike. 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, are inseparable with both versions as a symbolic decoration to adorn the festive puddings with its jewel-like presence.
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 their rebirth. The joy of a first baby tooth in Turkey is 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 on 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 fertility dish of keşkek, a wheat and meat stew.
Balkan, Eastern European, Russian, and Caucasian practices are astonishingly similar; kutya, kutia, vareno zitho, gorgot are only a few to name among the wheat dishes or sweets that have either a significance with birth, death, or renewal. The variations are endless. One thing remains constant for 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 renewal.
Aşure is definitely about sharing. In that respect, that bowl of aşure in the pudding shop is worth another look. It might also be worth taking the time to make a batch of your own to share. 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.