The month of Muharram is amongst us as we are currently in the midst of the first month of the Islamic calendar. In Islam, this time of year is considered to be the second holiest month following Ramadan. Muslims also fast on the 10th day of the month, which this year fell on July 28.
Colloquially, here in Türkiye this time period, which rotates annually due to the Islamic calendar being based on the lunar cycle, is also referred to as the month of aşure, ashura, because many Turkish households prepare a very special dessert referred to in English as Noah’s pudding for the intentions of distributing it to family, friends, neighbors and members of the community. As this year, the Muharram month began on July 19, we can expect Noah’s pudding to be prepared and distributed at any time up until Aug. 16. What this means for us foreigners in Türkiye is that you should not be surprised should a neighbor come knocking on your door to offer you a bowl of Noah’s pudding.
Noah’s pudding is a dessert that is made in a variety of countries and holds significance for diverse religions. It is considered to be the oldest dessert in the world and is believed that it was made as a celebratory dish by Noah when his ark landed on Mount Judi, which is now present-day Cizre. The legendary Noah’s Ark is of course the ship in which Noah, his family, and pairs of female and male versions of all of the world’s species were spared by God from a flood that wiped out all else of humanity and all living creatures due supposedly to their evil nature. The story appears in Genesis and Quran and the timeframe it was speculated to have occurred in may span all the way back to 5,000 B.C.
What’s in Noah’s pudding you ask? Well, a better question would be: “What’s not in Noah’s pudding?” This is because it is believed that Noah and his family concocted the celebratory dish from whatever was left on board the ark. These days, it is prepared from a variety of fresh and dried fruits, nuts, grains, pulses and flowers. Yes, that’s right, you read correctly, as this dessert can oftentimes include beans such as chickpeas and otherwise in its preparation as well as rose water. Not only is its variety thought to represent prosperity and abundance, but it is also an opportune time to empty out your pantry and use up the random last bits of appropriate ingredients added to the mix.
Needless to say, households prepare Noah’s pudding in bulk, because the most significant part of this dessert’s tradition is that it is made to distribute to loved ones, family, friends, neighbors and members of the community. Neighbors will readily knock on your door in order to pass out a bowl of Noah’s pudding regardless of the recipient’s nationality or religion. Distributing this dessert by its maker is considered an offering of love and peace, which in Türkiye culturally transcends any sort of discrimination.
To refuse this gesture and not accept the dessert is pretty much-considered sacrilege. I unfortunately made the grave mistake of doing so, simply because I didn’t want to consume something so sweet and did not want the dish to go to waste. I will never forget the look of disdain I received from said neighbor, who refused to listen to my reasoning nor ever speak to me again. So, please heed my advice, and under no circumstances should you refuse this kind offer as you could regret it for all eternity, as I know I do.
Once received, however, there is another specific rule foreigners in Türkiye should be aware of and that is that a bowl or plate is never returned empty. This means that according to custom, one should fill the dish they are returning with something, yet what it is filled with doesn’t really matter. It truly is just the gesture that counts. I have certainly gone out of my way to bake cookies and cakes to decoratively place on the plate I was returning, but even a bag of dried apricots, nuts, or fruit could certainly suffice.
The preparation and distribution of Noah’s pudding are certainly not limited to the month of Muharram as it can be prepared to celebrate or commemorate near anything and distributed as an offering of gratitude or protection. For example, some families will prepare a dessert to celebrate their child’s first tooth growing out as a symbol of gratitude for protecting their baby in its first year of life.
There are a number of other food items that are prepared with a similar intent such as pişi, which is particularly distributed on the Night of Power, Laylat al-Qadr. Held on the 27th of the holy month of Ramadan, according to Muslim belief, this is the night when the Quran was first sent down from heaven to the world. Pişi is a delightful ball of fried dough that resembles an oddly shaped doughnut but is not sweetened. Usually gifted in a plastic bag, if a specific piece of dishware is not involved, then the rule of returning it filled no longer comes into play.
Lokma on the other hand can very much be likened to a doughnut hole as it is a perfectly round fried ball of airy dough that is doused in a sugary syrup. Lokma is another treat that is prepared to either celebrate or commemorate in situations such as sending a son off to the military. There are actually trucks that people can hire that will park and prepare and distribute lokma for free to anyone who stands in line. Last but not least is halva, which is the name of a dessert made from crumbly flour, semolina or tahini and is another sweet treat that is prepared and gifted as a meaningful offering, such as upon funerals and on the ever-so-special Night of Power.