Guide to SKOPJE

The Istanbullu-Greek aşure: an example of cultural exchange

Thanks to our readers Balkon3 launches the second part of Asure story.

The relevant rituals accompanying the mixing and consumption of nuts, pulses and grains on a special occasion have always symbolized plenty and fertility, but were also conceived as a way of keeping in good terms with the chthonian Goddess (the Earth).

From pre-Christian all the way to Christian Greece, the food shared in funerals now called “kolyva” is by no means an accidental example – boiled wheat being the principal ingredient in an overall dry mixture of several dry fruits and pulses. Even though in modern Greece there exist a multitude of local ways to prepare this type of ceremonial dish (and for different occasions in the peoples’ lives) the name “asoures” (hellenized form of the Turkish word) is used by the people that have had the experience of co-existence with the Turks in western Anatolia (Asia Minor), and of course by their descendents that live today in Greece.

Nevertheless, it is the Istanbullu Greeks in particular that have introduced a special way of preparing asoures with mixed elements from both the Turkish/Muslim (boiled mix to be shared all around) and the Greek/Christian tradition (food suitable for fasting, i.e. containing no animal products). It’s done in a practical way, so that it both serves the dietary custom but also safeguards one’s health from strained boiled wheat running the danger of quickly spoiling and causing poisoning.  Tradition demands that kolyva are shared with the deceased’s kin and strangers alike until they are over, so any leftovers have to be preserved to this purpose of offering all around.

Hence, the Turkish way is adopted and kolyva are boiled again to a new liquid concoction, the trick being that they add the starchy water in which the wheat was initially boiled in. Browned flour is already used in kolyva, now serving as an extra setting agent. The concoction is cooled in bowls till it sets and is decorated in the same way as it is observed in Turkey today.

As the Istanbullu researcher Soula Bozi reminds us in her book “Istanbuli Cuisine. A centuries’ – old tradition”(Ellinika Grammata, 2003) asoures was also prepared by the Greeks of Istanbul using the leftover ingredients of traditional foods of the Lent (the 40-day fasting season before the Orthodox Easter), that is the same ingredients again.

Moreover, asoures was served during the fast on the Eve of Epiphany (the commemorated Baptism of Christ, January 6th). “It was then customary that asoures was offered to neighbors as a gift”, Soula Bozi states.

Sophia Nikolaou