On Thursday night Nasreddin Hodja’s wife boiled wheat berries and rice with a pinch of salt in the soup kettle, a few handfuls of white beans in the little copper pot, and a few handfuls of chickpeas in the black pot. She had done this all her life on a Thursday of Muharram, first as a little child barely able to see into the kettle and later as a young woman trying it out for the first time alone, and finally now, as an almost-old woman grateful to still have the health and strength to run a kitchen.
Two hours later when the beans were soft and the wheat looked thick and creamy, she drained the beans and chickpeas and mixed them into the wheat. She stirred in swirls of golden honey. She flung in handfuls of big yellow raisins, tiny black bird-raisins, chopped apricots, chopped figs, chopped dried peaches and cherries she’d hidden away from summer, and a couple of chopped fresh apples. She lobbed in a few cups of sugar and two vanilla pods, slashed and scraped. She stirred and boiled until she knew the sugar was dissolved, put the lid on the kettle, dragged it off the fire, and went to bed.
In the morning she chopped bowls of walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds, toasted a handful of pine nuts and a handful of sesame seeds, and stirred them into the pudding in the kettle, which was still warm. She grated three lemons and threw the rind in with a cloud of ground cinnamon. She opened two pomegranates ripe to bursting and drizzled the jewel-red seeds over the top. Last, she poured in rosewater, gave a final stir and tasted it. “Ah, magnificent! Alhamdulillah.”
She filled bowls and bowls, for her upstairs neighbor, the imam’s family in the mosque, the storekeeper down the hill, the old lady living alone down the road, the beggar who always sat at the door of the mosque, the family of twelve children beside the shop. By the time she was finished taking it all around, it was dinnertime, so she set the table with a big bowl of the last of the ashura in the middle.
Hodja came home right on time for dinner. He wolfed down his pilaf and eggplant without interest, eager to tuck into that bowl of ashura, as he had done all his life, first as a babe in his mother’s arms, later as a naughty schoolboy snitching spoonfuls on the sly, and finally now, an almost-old man grateful for the health and strength to be able to work.
As much as he’d have wanted to, he just couldn’t empty that giant bowl. Full and grateful, he left the table, kissed his wife on the head, and went off to the mosque for the night prayer. She cleared the table and scraped the last of the ashura into a smaller bowl, covered it, and put it in the cupboard.
In the middle of the night, Hodja woke up tossing and turning. He got out of bed, stole down the stairs, opened the cupboard, took that little covered bowl and two spoons, and went back up to bed. He lit a candle at the bedside.
“Wife! Wake up!”
“What are you doing, Hodja?”
“Wake up! Help me eat this! I’ll sleep much better with it in my stomach than in my mind!”