By Su Hyeon Cho
Mid-August is the grape harvest season in Vakfılı, an Armenian village perched on the mountainous region of the southernmost Turkish province of Hatay. Tasting grapes takes the form of ritual in the patient waiting until Surp Asdvadzadzin, the holiday that celebrates the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary by blessing the grapes and cooking a sacred porridge. The prelude to this festive occasion consists of the drumbeats of davul and the blasting of zurna the night before. Cheerful crowds dance around seven steaming cauldrons of harisa in the churchyard overnight. The porridge, made out of sacrificed meat (madagh) and wheat, is simmered overnight on an open fire until the meat disintegrates. The repetitive labour of churning the ingredients into a viscous consistency is key, hence the name harisa (or hrisi in colloquial Arabic), which originated from ‘churning’ or ‘pounding’ in both Armenian and Arabic.
This year’s Surp Asdvadzadzin was prepared by a much smaller, more dejected crowd, as Lora Baytar Çapar, a resident of Vakıflı, describes in her essay “May the taste of harisa be the same, this holiday lacks its flavour”. Earlier in February this year, a deadly earthquake shook Hatay and the wider region of north Syria and south Turkey, resulting in over 50,000 deaths and the destruction of the livelihoods of millions.
In Vakıflı, villagers also fell victim to the earthquake. Many had left the village by summer. A community centre in the village stood in for the severely damaged churchyard, and candle holders and other ecclesiastical ornaments were brought in to imitate the usual celebration. Yet, the seven once brimming cauldrons were only half full. There were no cheerful rhythms and melodies of davul and zurna. Although the setting may seem insufficient, Çapar underlines, continuing the tradition of cooking harisa is the community’s will to survive.
During my visit to Hatay in September, I witnessed construction work in progress, a series of emptied plots of land and what locals call “camp cities” (çadır kentler) along the road from Antakya to the coastal district of Samandağ. After an hour of dusty travel, I reached the Hızır Aleyhisselam Türbesi, where the suprahuman Hızır (al-Khidr) is believed to have met with Moses. In the vicinity of this spiritual centre for the Alawite community, there is a communal kitchen area where harisa is prepared throughout the year. As harisa is the most celebrated sacrificial meal in the region, locals vow to make a sacrificial offering (called adak in Turkish) for the healing, fertility, and safety of their beloved. On that account, Turkish guest workers in Europe (gurbetçi) hurriedly returned to their hometown shortly after the earthquake and cooked harisa.My interlocutors pointed out that cooking harisa is a form of prayer, and post-earthquake harisa reflects this belief even more strongly.
In the wake of the fortieth-day commemoration after the earthquake, Mişel Orduluoğlu pens an essay grieving for the capital Antakya. Orduluoğlu notes that fortieth day signals the departure of the souls that are no longer with us. The writer adds the period of “five Friday prayers, five shabbat meals, and five Sunday masses with candlelight and frankincense” had passed without Antakya’s usual soundscape, a mixture of call for prayer (ezan), church bells (çan), and Jewish canton (hazzan). “When the city has lost its spiritual sites, then where should one convene the funeral procession?” the writer rhetorically asks. The earthquake did not select its victims, and each community, of different ethno-religious backgrounds, is going through the same pain – together. Orduoğlu remarks that harisa is a means of collective mourning for the loss of the diversity of Antakya that residents have long been proud of.
No writer would set preparing harisa in a closed, family kitchen. It is a communal dish, cooked in bulk for sharing at sites where communities feel a spiritual connection. The new kitchen setting, surrounded by rubble and debris, is an odd spectacle. In his essay, Hakan Mercan painfully details the destruction of historical buildings, from Habib-i Neccar Mosque to St. Pierre Church, allegedly the first mosque in Anatolia and the oldest cave church in the world, respectively. Amid despair, the author notes, the survival of the Hızır Aleyhisselam Türbesi gave solace to the community. The essay concludes with reclaiming harisa’s boisterous presence, which reads, “Nothing would remain the same as before, but let’s not surrender to the shadow of hopelessness… Excited children will impatiently stand in a long queue in front of the cauldrons of harisa, burning the frankincense. We will bloom again and again.”
Vernacular writing about harisa in the wake of the earthquake culminates in a recipe for compassion, sharing, solidarity, miracle work, and hope. As such, food writing on harisa does not resemble other food writing. It often contains wordy headnotes about pain and loss, without much in the way of culinary instruction or gastronomic pleasure. Gastronomic pleasure is nowhere to be found. Their recipes for harisa are in the future tense, waiting for the joviality to return, the community to revive.
Su Hyeon Cho is a DPhil candidate in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral project ‘Saints and States in a Plastic Bowl: Tales of a Sacred Porridge in Unlikely State’ focuses on harisa-cooking Alawite, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian communities from Hatay to explore the transcending power of rituals in perpetual ruptures from anthropological perspectives. Before returning to academia, she worked in different capacities at research institutions, diplomatic missions, and the United Nations in the Middle East.