Sunday, 30 August 2020

The Origin of Ashoura Dessert — aka Noah’s Pudding

Ashoura Dessert — aka Noah’s Pudding by Omar Cherif, Northern Coast of Egypt, August 2020

Made of mainly wheat, milk, sugar, and vanilla, this traditional dessert shown in the featured photo is called Ashoura — aka Noah’s Pudding. The name (عاشوراء) comes from the fact that it is usually made on the 10th of the first Islamic month of Moharram — as ‘Ashara’ (عشرة) means ten in Arabic. The Day of Ashoura is a holy Islamic celebration on which some Muslims fast. The following is the historical story of Ashoura. 

The dessert is highly popular in Egypt among the rest of the Arab and Muslim world — where it is often made in large quantities. Relatives, friends, and neighbours would exchange bowls in-between them on that day as a celebratory offering of peace and love; it is equally distributed to the poor.

According to one view, the origin of Ashoura/Ashura goes back to the Fatimids who brought the celebration along when they arrived to Egypt in the year 969. The Fatimids dynasty is known to have followed the Abbasid Caliphate and lasted till 1174, when Saladin and the Ayyubids took over Egypt until 1252. 

The Ayyubites were then overthrown by their Turkish bodyguards, known as Mamluks — meaning ‘owned’ in Arabic — who ruled the country from Cairo under the protection of the Abbasid Caliphs [from Baghdad] until 1517. Egypt was seized once again by the Turkish army of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I to become part of the Ottoman Empire.

The holiness of The Day of Ashoura is believed to go back to the day Moses escaped from the Pharaoh. The 10th of Moharram also remains a special occasion for Shia Islam; as it marks the end of the Battle of Karbala — 10 October 680 — as well as the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of prophet Muhammad. 

Other pre-Islamic spiritual events believed to have happened on this day are: 

  • Adam was accepted by God because of his repentance.

  • Noah’s ark came to rest and the passengers survived.

  • The sea was divided, and the nation of Israel was delivered from captivity, while the Pharaoh’s army was destroyed.

  • Jesus was raised to the heavens.

  • Corresponds to the Mosaic Yom Kippur observed by Jews.

Another view regarding its origin is that the Ashoura dessert arrived to Egypt through the later Ottomans. It is called Ashouri/Ashure (Aşure) in Turkish — with Ash(Aş) representing mixed porridge. Etymologically, it is derived from Persian word ‘Ashur’, meaning mixing. 

However, the Turkish version apparently [and somewhat oddly] contains certain beans (فاصوليا), chickpeas, nuts, and coconut; in addition to fruits like pomegranate and oranges.

After reading this article, a cousin from Turkey added that apricots, figs, and grapes are also used. There, it is served all-year round and not just on that one day.

In Armenia, Ashoura is called Anuşabur, which they serve during Christmas as well as on New Year's Eve.

Being such a universal dessert, there is no one single recipe for Ashoura nor a fixed selection of ingredients — as they vary between the different regions and even families. 

Some superstitiously claim Ashoura must contain seven ingredients, while others go for “at least ten”. Among these are wheat, barley, rice, white beans, chickpeas, sweetener, dates, pomegranates, beets, dried fruits, and nuts. Added as garnish, more optional ingredients are: Anise seed, sesame seeds, pine nuts, black cumin seeds, prunus mahaleb, pomegranate kernels, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. Other variations are flavoured with anise liqueur, rose water and/or orange blossom water. Additional versions may include orange and lemon peel to add depth to the pudding. In almost all cases, Ashoura remains a vegan dish.

Among Turkish and Balkan Sufis the pudding is prepared with special prayers for health, healing, safety, success and spiritual nourishment.

The exact reason why such specific ingredients have been used for centuries to make Ashoura remains unknown. According to an anecdotal myth going back to Armenia — believed by the Turks — these are the ingredients Noah’s family gathered as leftovers when the food on his ark was nearly exhausted. Hence the name Noah’s Pudding.

The featured photo was taken at the family summer home on the Mediterranean Northern Coast of Egypt. Our former nanny Bassima who have been cooking for the family for the past 40 years made it few days ago on the 10th of Moharram, which was the inspiration behind this article. At our home, the only things we add to the original wheat-milk-sugar-vanilla combo are almonds before drizzling some cinnamon.

Interestingly, following setting the bowls up in such a way then shooting I felt compelled to count them — especially after reading about the numerology sometimes involved regarding the ingredients. They were 9. But the thing is, Bassima had made 10 in total; with symmetry in mind, I was the one who discarded the 10th bowl before snapping some photos. I had to then ask her if that was on purpose, to which she said no, it was just a coincidence. An uncanny one nevertheless.    

Now we know.

Nom Nom Nom.


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