Anoush Abour or Noah's Pudding
Stories create culture. They are what we tell ourselves to survive, they are the things we hope outlive us. Whether myth or reality, sometimes those stories become legendary. If you're lucky, they involve food.
Take the one about Anoush Abour, (literally "sweet soup" in Armenian) which is also known as Noah's Pudding. The story goes that Noah and his family and all the animals he crammed into the Ark were running out of food while it continued to rain for 40 days and 40 nights. So Noah began boiling a big pot of water and asked everyone to bring them what was left. In went wheat and dried fruit and whatever else his family could find, as the giraffes and elephants looked on. As he was cooking the mixture, the rain stopped and Noah and his posse came to miraculously land on the "mountains of Ararat," according to the Book of Genesis.
"That's the legend that Armenians recall on their Christmas, January 6th, as they eat 'sweet soup' in thanksgiving," wrote reporter Nancy Ayer in the Detroit Free Press in 1955. In her article titled "Noah Liked This Dish, So Try It On Your Family," Ayer tells the tale of Armenian Christmas pudding and includes a recipe from a Mrs. Charles Boyajian who made and served it with other "Armenian hostesses" at the International Institute in Metropolitan Detroit. Founded in 1919, the nonprofit organization aimed to help immigrants with a variety of services including learning English and "understand each other's cultures."
"On Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day this cooled thick pudding is eaten, along with dried fruits served in colorful designs on great platters," the paper continued.
The Detroit Free Press wasn't the only paper writing about "Armenian Christmas Pudding." The Petaluma Argus-Courier in Petaluma, Calif., included a recipe for the dish in 1968, the Tampa Tribune in Florida mentioned it in 1976 as part of a feature on Armenian Christmas celebrations ("I'll make it if I can find the right wheat," Louise [Yardumian] says) and the Delaware County Times in Chester, Pennsylvania included a recipe from Mrs. Aram Zakian, calling it "An Armenian Favorite For Your Dessert File" in 1970.
The Chicago Tribune even wrote about it in 1985. It reminded the Tribune's test kitchen tasters more of a "comforting hot breakfast cereal rather than a dessert."
The mention of this obscure Eastern holiday food in mainstream press across America shouldn't come as a surprise - when the Armenian Genocide dispersed its survivors to places across the world, those who landed in America went to its most common and uncommon corners, bringing with them their stories, ways of life and cuisine, including this pudding.
Like so many dishes, this one is shared across current borders, geographic regions, cultures and religions - Christians, Jews and Muslims all have their versions of the dessert and the tale of Noah is included in both the Old Testament and Quran. For Greeks, it is known as "Koliva," and used as a ritual food in the event of someone passing away.
In the English-speaking world, the modern retelling of this dish - considered the oldest dessert in the world - it is most widely classified as a Turkish dessert called "Ashure" or "Noah's Pudding," made with beans and chickpeas instead of wheat during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.
A piece in the Turkish press however, called it "a Turkish dessert of Armenian origin with a unique story."
Food origins are often a difficult and futile pursuit, however, given that Armenians and Greeks were indigenous inhabitants of the areas now contained within the borders of the Republic of Turkey for thousands of years - including the region where Mount Ararat is located - there's strong reason to speculate that this "sweet soup" could have been introduced by the region's native people. Plus, there's the whole Armenian conversion to Christianity in the 4th century thing (thus the extreme reverence for the Noah's Ark tale) long before the first arrival of Turks in Anatolia in the 11th and 12 centuries.
Before Turkey became Turkey in 1923, it was a place teeming with diversity, where cultures and people - Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Jews, the French, Bulgarians, Kurds and more intersected with each other - something that is largely forgotten today.
The dish itself has ventured beyond itself into the literary and political realms. In Elif Shafak's novel about Armenian and Turkish relations and the memory of the genocide, "The Bastard of Istanbul," Ashure is a significant symbol, even 16 of the 17 chapters are named after the ingredients that make up the recipe.
Anoush Abour was also evoked by the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul in a statement decrying France's decision to criminalize the denial of the Armenian Genocide.
"This country belongs to all of us," he was reported saying. "We have shared Noah's pudding with our Muslim neighbors. Armenians will cook Noah's pudding next week and return our neighbors' plate after filling it with the same."
The dish has also been used beyond the region as a means of fostering discussion. The Dialogue Society, a British non-profit charity group has used Noah's Pudding as a way for diverse communities to have intercultural dialogue, having been inspired by the traditions of London's Turkish community.
No matter who makes it and how, its meaning is encapsulated in the act of sharing it with those around you. it is cooked in large batches and distributed to friends, family and neighbors as a sign of goodwill and a prosperous future.
Its melange of ingredients symbolizes unity, the strength in diversity and co-existence. It's a powerful, delicious message. Origins and bowls of pudding with as ancient a story as this can and should be shared, but as I researched and then made Anoush Abour, it made me think of something else, something that seems to linger like a thread throughout the history of Armenians who have had to create and protect and practice what they could salvage from their culture and cuisine in spaces across the world because they were erased from the one they called home: the beauty of serving something so meaningful lies in everyone having a seat at the table.
Armenian Christmas Pudding/Anoush Abour
Mrs. Jack Boyajian, Mrs. Jack Crane, Detroit Free Press, 1955
1 cup skinless whole grain wheat (usually called "wheat berry" at the supermarket)
1 1/2 cups of bleached raisins
1 1/2 cups of dried apricots
1/4 dry currant
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons rosewater
Thoroughly wash the whole wheat. Add it to a pot with three quarts of water. Bring to a boil and then set aside to soak overnight.
The next day, cook the wheat on a low heat for 1.5 hours. Wash and drain the fruit and nuts, adding it to the pot. Cook for another 30 minutes, then add the sugar.
“When the mixture comes off the stove, some Armenian cooks add two T rose water, But Mrs. Boyajian says, this is a matter of your taste." (I would add the rosewater if I were you)
Pour it into a serving plate (or individual glass serving plates if that's your thing) and let it cool. Then decorate it with nuts, apricots or pomegranate seeds. Some people even write out the numbers of the new year in pomegranate seeds on this pudding.