I have got unexpected feedback to my speech at the recent tourism conference in Ukraine: I was talking about how to develop and launch a niche tourism product (aka my Istanbul food walks and cooking classes). After my presentation another speaker approached me, “Olga, you look like a very happy person! Indeed what one needs to be happy – job that you love and family that supports you”. Indeed while we may picture happiness as a definitive climax with the bad guys killed and the good ones kissing with sparkles in the sky as a backdrop happiness often times comes in simpler and not-so-glorious aspects.
Take for instance the last week when I..
.. helped our housekeeper clean the Ozgur’s parents’ house.
There was no real need and Özgür’s cousin said, “Olga abla, yeter ya!” (Stop it, sister!) at some point overwhelmed by my diligence. But I felt happy to make sure the house was neat and clean. It was my humble welcome to Ozgur’s mom after two weeks she spend at the hospital doing a whole bunch of tests and examinations.
She had missed the place and her kitchen so much that right upon her arrival she started turning 3-4 course meals for us every day. Grateful I wanted to give a subtle sign that I am willing to take the responsibility at our farmhouse in Sapanca beyond just our relationship with her son. Her “Thank you” was acceptance and so enough to make me happy.
..spent one and a half hours at the kitchen preparing salep.
Salep is a hot Turkish beverage made of powered orchid root and served in winter. The powdered orchid root has the qualities of gelatin and thickens milk: the resulting beverage reminds hot condensed milk. I made my salep without a recipe because the one they gave me at the shop was clearly a random one. With little experimentation I eventually came up with the right ratio: 2 table spoons high-quality salep to 1 liter milk and sugar to taste. One and a half hours for a 3-ingredient fix, though seemed outrageous. Before I realized that it was only up to me what the fourth ingredient will be – my impatience to finish or my zen fluids. The latter proved to be a more delicious addition and I was happy to treat the Sapanca folk to the outcome.
..took a break from Facebook and Twitter to make a yarn doll.
With a little forked stick I picked from the garden, a pile of patches left from occasional sewing and a huge bag of colorful threads and lace from the weekly pazar at Adapazarı. I made my doll with two large round breasts according to the traditional design of blagodat’, or divine grace doll. I then made the doll’s hands by wrapping red thread around the forked stick – always up because a woman has simply no right to put hands down and give up.
Making dolls to me is getting in touch with the roots – those of a Slavic woman. Russian and Ukrainian yarn dolls have clear female features and are mostly made for protection. No wonder that women as home makers creating tangible and intangible comforts for their family do need all the support and protection they can get from supreme powers. Meanwhile man don’t need protection from supreme powers as they get their t-shirts ironed. Making a doll a week I feel much more protected and happy.
.. paid a visit to Cafe Euro at the little Georgia in Aksaray, post-Soviet immigrant ghetto of Istanbul.
Before starting the meal I washed my hands first with a glass cleaner and then a dish washing detergent as apparently those were the only washing liquids I could find around. No hand soap. I felt ridiculous just as when once traveling Bosnia and Herzegovina I accepted hospitality of a cleaning lady at the bus station. Her post-war house had bare walls and a few pieces of furniture. The cosmetic items for the family of four I found at the bathroom were way fewer when I packed for myself for that mere trip. With my mac pro and 5 kilos of sophisticated photo gear I felt awkward.
Like I have overdone it in life. Same way I felt at the little Georgian in Aksaray: my former countrymen and citizens of the glorious USSR were now treated as second-grade people taking some most low-paid and hazardous jobs in Turkey. What they have done wrong that others got right? My pity was interrupted by the delicious food the ladies at the Cafe Euro turned and the food like the least common denominator made all of us equal and happy in a way.
.. made aşure.
Sometimes called Noah’s pudding it is one of the favorites in Turkey and increasingly so during the winter. According to various Islamic traditions its making takes place on the first month of the Islamic calendar to commemorate Noah’s landing on the Mount Ararat or the Battle of Karbala. You make a lot and share with the neighbors to celebrate peace and community.
I could not find the most definitive aşure recipe so I used my guts to recreate the taste of the pudding I ate before. Wheat berry, great Northern beans, chickpeas and rice enhanced by chopped dry figs, apricots and raisins then sweetened with sugar and eventually seasoned with grated orange peel and cinnamon. Then chilled and sprinkled with chopped peanuts, almonds, walnuts, raisins, dates, pomegranate seeds and definitely ground pistachio.
I made a huge pot and packed a container to take to the guys at my favorite dry fruit and nut shop – always cheerful, loud and united. I have got most of the ingredients for this pudding, endless teas and tastings to my food walk clients from them. Why not to give back in a small way: they call me a big sister (abla), after all. They were humbled and I felt happy.
Happiness is a process. It may be like salep -a 3-ingredient fix which takes a while to get right. Or like aşure – with too many ingredients to remember but invariably turning well. You can endlessly try to engineer your happiness and aspire to find the right recipe but the truth is the recipe does not matter. What does is whether you like the taste of what you get at the end. Just like this no recipe Christmas pudding, aşure.
No Recipe Christmas Pudding: Aşure
- Night before preparations: Measure two and a half handfuls of wheat berries, one handful of chickpeas, one handful of great Northern beans and half of a handful of rice. Wash each grain until water runs clear and place each in an individual bowl: you will need one fairly large one for the wheat berries and three small ones for the rest. Add boiling water to the bowls to cover wheat berries by three fingers and to cover the rest of the grains and legumes by two fingers. In addition, in a medium size bowl pre-soak in boiling water a few dry apricots, dry figs and a handful of golden raisins. Set aside overnight so that all the ingredients soak in enough water to fasten the cooking process.
- Morning preparations: Wash and drain our four grains and legumes. Transfer the wheat berries to a large cooking pot and cover with boiling water by three fingers. Bring to boil, reduce the heat to low and let simmer covered for about 20 minutes. Then add rice to the same bowl and let simmer covered for twenty minutes more. Switch off the heat and let seat for an hour or two. Repeat the process with the legumes: transfer the chickpeas into a small pot, cover with boiling water by two fingers, bring to boil, reduce the heat to low and let simmer covered for about 40 minutes. Then add great Northern beans to the same bowl and let simmer covered for 40 minutes more, till both are cooked. Switch off the heat and let seat for 2-3 hours.
- Actual pudding preparations: Most likely through the described manipulations the wheat berries and rice absorbed all the water in the large pot. If not so, remove excessive water from that pot – we will be using it for the rest of your pudding making from this moment. Drain the cooked chickpeas and great Northern beans yet do not discard the water they were cooked in. Now peel the shells off: as both legumes are cooked it will be a very easy task. Transfer peeled chickpeas and great Northern beans into the pot with wheat berries and rice, turn the heat to medium and bring to boil stirring now and then so that the pudding does not stick to the pan. Once the pudding starts to boil reduce the heat to low, add two handfuls of sugar (stir, taste and see if you’d like more), grated orange peel, a generous pinch cinnamon and pre-soaked coarsely chopped dry fruits – figs, apricots and raisins. Continue cooking as you stir for about 40 more minutes. If needed you may add some cooking liquid left from the legumes. Then set aside to cool down.
- Serving the pudding: Pick up your favorite little bowls and portion the pudding into them. Decorate each pudding portion with chopped dried fruits and nuts: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, raisins, dates, pomegranate seeds and definitely ground pistachio are only suggestions and you can definitely go wilder. Allegedly the ingredients in the original version were 40 and the absolute minimum is 10. Serve immediately or even better – refrigerate overnight. You will have about 8 servings. Merry Christmas!