Ashure: A Sometimes Rich Pudding with an Always Rich History

Ashure’s sweetness transcends religions and regions

Ashure: A Sometimes Rich Pudding with an Always Rich History
Ashure pudding / Getty Images

I am a nomad at heart. I always have been, and I will always be. Since leaving my hometown of Malatya to get a vocational degree at the age of 13, I have been on the move. My journeys have taken me across Turkey, to several cities in the United States and, more recently, to the U.K. Despite being a nomad, I have a few items that I always take with me to make myself feel rooted: a table runner that my late mother made, stitching up the fabrics from our old dresses; a pillowcase that bears the image of a hand-painted huma, the phoenix-like bird that symbolizes immortality and resurrection, made by the late Nasra Şammeshindi Çilli, a Syriac local artist from Mardin; and, the most beguiling, a miniature copper bucket that my late father gave me as a gift on my first trip to his shop back in 1979.

This bucket has had a variety of crucial daily and annual functions throughout my life. As a child, I was the cupbearer for my father. As soon as he came home from work, I would pour water into his glass from the bucket, which I filled from a river running by our house. Back then, the rivers had crystal clear and sweet waters that would quench your thirst on a hot summer day. And that same bucket had another function: It was the condiment box that I filled with a mixture of ground walnuts and cinnamon to garnish the pudding my mother cooked every year on Ashura day, marking the 10th day of the month of Muharram.

My mother, Sultan, was a less-is-more type of person. Her ashure pudding recipe called for a mixture of soupy wheat berries, chickpeas, white beans, golden sultanas (a type of raisin made from seedless grapes) and sugar. She soaked the dry ingredients overnight. The next morning, she would wake up early and start boiling the legumes and wheat berries in separate pots. Once cooked, she mixed them together and let simmer for an hour or so. For the final stage, she added the sultanas and sugar and poured the delicious, hot pudding into a big copper bucket. Then, we would start knocking on our neighbors’ doors to share our pudding. My job was simply to garnish the pudding liberally with the walnut and cinnamon mix after my mother poured it into each neighbor’s bowl. However, my love for walnuts and cinnamon often stopped me from being too generous, and I recall being a little startled after hearing my mother whisper to me, “a little more,” accompanied by a stern stare from her honey-colored eyes.

My miniature bucket, with its flared bottom, no longer functions as a condiment box. One day, it is a vase to display the wildflowers I have picked during my morning stroll. Another day, it is a pencil holder. But it has always been a piece that reminds me to cherish good moments from my childhood, such as making the ashure pudding. As a kid who grew up in a mixed Alevi and Sunni neighborhood in Malatya, I listened to all the stories associated with the meaning of the pudding. The Alevis in Turkey, who follow a syncretic faith with practices spinning from Islam and Sufism as well as borrowing from Christianity and shamanism, spend 10 or 12 days strictly fasting and observing a period of mourning during the month of Muharram, which ends on a sweet note — the cooking of the ashure pudding. When I was a naïve 7-year-old, I just assumed that the pudding was an Alevi-specific dessert. As a teenager, I realized that Sunnis made it too.

In Islam, the month of Muharram is the start of the Islamic New Year, a time devoted to building good relations with your neighbors and focusing on universal peace and tolerance. This quest stems from the martyrdom of Hussein and his followers by the Umayyad armies of Yazid I in 680 in Karbala, located in modern Iraq. Yazid I declared himself ruler over the Ummah and requested that Hussein, the son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet, acknowledge it. Yazid I’s armies besieged Hussein and his followers to get his allegiance at any cost. First, they cut off the water leading into their camp. Then, when Hussein and his followers did not acknowledge Yazid I as their ruler, they were decapitated. This event marks the creation of the Sunni and Shiite sects within Islam.

The Alevis commemorate the agony of Hussein and his people through fasting and abstinence during Muharram. They refrain from using knives, even for mundane tasks such as cutting the heads of onions. They fast by eating a very small portion before they go to bed and without doing the Suhur, the predawn meal. When they break their fast, they abstain from meat and eat only vegetables and legumes and drink moderate amounts of water. As with the Alevis, this is also a season of mourning for the Shiites, which includes a day of processions filled with self-flagellation and the shedding of blood. For both groups, the mourning ends with the consumption of ashure pudding.

The ashure’s alluring offer of peace and sweetness in the new year crosses into Armenian and Greek cuisines as well. To celebrate the advent of Christmas as well as New Year’s, the Armenians cook anoush abour (sweet soup), a pudding of wheat berry, golden sultanas, dried figs and apricots sweetened with honey and topped with pomegranate. The Greeks have a recipe called koliva (small coin) that also includes wheat berry, sugar and golden sultanas, topped with almonds and pomegranates. This pudding is served following the Mnimosyna ceremony to commemorate the dead. Greeks serve the same pudding during the Great Lent (also known as the Great Fast) period, observed each year just before Easter and also during death-related commemorations around Christmas.

A slight variation known as the kutia, spun off from kokkos (grain), is consumed not only by Eastern Orthodox communities in the Balkans and Eastern Europe but also by Catholic Christians in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia during Christmas, New Year’s and the Feast of Jordan (i.e., the Baptism of Christ). The Serbs have a similar delicacy called zhito (wheat), which is also used for funerary commemorations and New Year’s celebrations. The pudding also adorns tables on the feast day of the family saint, a ritual known as Slava. For Orthodox and Catholic families in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, a slight variation known as the Burbara is made to celebrate Eid il-Burbara on Dec. 4. This is the feast day of Barbara, an important Byzantine saint who managed to escape Roman soldiers by running through freshly planted wheat fields that grew instantly to hide her path.

The name of the pudding is also telling. The word ashura/e means “the 10th” in Semitic languages. In Islam, it is the 10th day of the month of Muharram. This is the time when many Old and New Testament attributions were made. For instance, it is often believed that this time coincided with the repentance of Adam, Abraham’s survival of the fire created by Nimrod, Job’s recovery from his illness and Jonah coming out of the belly of the whale, to name a few. In English, this dessert is often called Noah’s Pudding. It is believed that the pudding we eat today derives from the first celebratory dish that Prophet Noah made using whatever was left over in his ark when he landed on Mount Judi, now located in Cizre, Turkey.

Ashure pudding has endless connotations. There is an emphasis on good and evil, which the tradition of eating it around Christmas and New Year’s or in remembrance of Abraham surviving the fire by Nimrod shows. There is also praise for the bounty and rejuvenation that the earth offers as we see in the idea of Noah’s pudding or the wheat fields that miraculously grow in the story of St. Barbara. Finally, there is an element of how Islam embraces pagan and Abrahamic beliefs. According to Sahih al-Bukhari (one of the most authentic hadith collections, compiled around 846 after his hegira to Medina in 622), on the 10th day of Muharram, the Prophet Muhammad saw the Jews fasting, and he questioned why. He was told that the Jews were remembering the day when Moses crossed the Red Sea and saved the Israelites from the pharaoh. Finding it an honorable act, the Prophet fasted as well and commanded that the Muslims fast on the 10th, as well as the ninth and 11th day of Muharram, which later became a Sunnah among the Sunnis.

During my childhood, I participated in these traditions by watching my mother and sisters make the pudding, learning its stories, and helping to eat it. But after the loss of my mother, shortly before I began graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I found myself thinking about the ashure pudding my mother made, chatting with my sisters and browsing cookbooks to understand its intricacies. This was when I came up with my own recipe. My version goes beyond the minimalist eight-ingredient recipe that my mother used to make, and it has become a household item that my nephews and nieces as well as most of my siblings love and request, even out of season. The only exception is my youngest brother, who says that my version is too modern — he says he prefers the minimalist version, served hot and soupy like our mother’s, but he quickly finishes bowls full of my version.

My ashure is thick, served cold, and it has around 20 ingredients. Trained as an archaeologist, I like dealing with layers. Whether it is a stratum that I am excavating, a guy whom I am dating or a recipe I am trying, I like unravelling the complexities and trying to understand the superimpositions. To me, nothing is monolithic, and all is palimpsestic. So, the ashure represents a perfect recipe. There are so many variants out there with different names, ingredients and consistencies, and I wanted to find my own.

My first research on the recipe led me to a fascinating range of ingredients, including fava beans, lentils, black-eyed peas, sesame seeds, dried figs, rosewater, orange zest, star anise, ground fennel and coconut flakes. Overall, I think that ashure pudding may be the most ancient recipe to match today’s catchword “superfood,” as it is filled with legumes, wheat, dried and fresh fruits, nuts and spices. Filled with fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamins A, E and B, it is a vegan’s power bowl.

But the power of ashure pudding surpasses differences such as the type or number of ingredients or the number of people you need to share it with. My mother, for example, fasted for 12 days and was a firm believer in sharing the ashure with at least 12 households to honor the memories of the 12 imams of the Alevi faith. Our neighbor Methiye Teyze, on the other hand, fasted for a day or two in the same month, cooked her own version of ashure and shared it with seven neighbors. There were three things both agreed on: First, the whiter the pudding, the more resourceful was the cook. Second, the meaning of life was bound to an earthly cycle created by soil, water, air and living things — their motto was, “When the wheat goes well, everything goes well.” And, finally, no knives were allowed during Muharram.

What I have found matters most is that ashure is a commemorative dessert that is best enjoyed when shared with others. During my search for a recipe and the subsequent years of cooking it, I dug deep into the multilayered history associated with it. While sharing it with friends and colleagues around the world, I tell them about its multiple histories and connotations, and I am always curious to hear their side of the story. Regardless of origin, date or culture, the commemorative aspect is always emphasized. The agony is vivid, but one needs to put an end to this suffering with a sweet or celebratory note, as well as wish for good deeds to come one’s way in the future. No need to exaggerate that sweet note by overpowering the recipe with sugar. Instead, you need to let the wheat berry extract its sugar content by letting it simmer for a long time and enrich its earthy and sweet aromas with a sprinkle of cinnamon as a final touch. Then, like much in life, one has to wait for it to cool down to get the full sense of its sweetness.

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