A Bread for the First Steps: Ceremonious Bread Traditions

According to Islam, all “halal” food is to be respected, praised and be thankful for, but bread is not used as a symbol in Islam unlike some other beliefs. Many folks follow their old customs and traditions regarding cuisine. In this article, we will talk about the traditional breads that celebrate birth in Turkic cultures.

The importance of childbearing is explained in an highly detailed manner in the Manas Saga. The bits that give suggestions to couples who are unable to have children for a long time are rather surprising. A shocking example is when Çıyrıcı Hatun (wife of Cakıp Han, the ruler who is the father of Manas) asked for the heart of a panther. Even though she was offered food, salt, bread, she craved a panther heart, not watermelon, not hot, fresh bread, not green plum. Strange kind of food craving…

Uyghur Turks collect one spoon flour from seven households, bring the flour to the “Hoca” (townsman of the village believed to have medicinal powers) to be blessed. Then a circular bread with a hole in the middle (like a simit or bagel) would be baked and fed to soon-to-be mothers, one piece on Wednesdays for seven weeks.

Another significant ceremony among Uyghur Turks is the first laying of the baby in its cradle, called “Böşük Toyi”. Beşik, which is the Turkish word for cradle, is derived from Böşük and Toy meaning ceremony/wedding. In this ceremony, the cradle mother called Irimci, would be selected from the most elderly ones in the family. She would point the cradle to the Kıbleh, pray and lay the baby in the Böşük after hanging a wolf bone and a piece of bread to protect the baby from evil spirits.

Tatars would gift a thin, round bread with a big hole in the middle to the pregnant mother. These breads were called “Kendek İpiye”, meaning, “belly bread”. If the child turned out to be a cry baby, elderly would ask “Why is this kid still crying, didn’t you give out belly bread?”.

Kryashens, an Orthodox Christian sub-group of Tatars, would give out Kendek İpiye at “Bebi Tue” (childbirth celebration) or to guests who come to visit. Another interesting custom by Kryashens, called Satukay or Satıy, a custom followed by families whose children have previously passed away. To get rid of the possible haunting of the evil spirits, families would gift their babies to a relative or their neighbour and receive their children from their window in exchange of money. They believed that the evil spirits would not bother them this way.

Turks from the Great Wall to West Mediterranean believed in these evil beings, called “Albasması”, which means red blushing. Turkish Cypriots even had traditions of buying as much meat to meet the weight of the baby and give it away to a person in need, changing its name or even putting the baby for a short second in the oven… Nowadays, an almond filled cookie is given out, which I really like.

The Gagauz Turks are also Christian like the Kryashens and their customs are almost same. From the baby’s birth to death, almost every significant moment of the baby’s life would be symbolised with a bread. To symbolize the good fortune for the newborn, midwives called “ebe” would bake a pita bread or a pie and serve it with honey to their neighbours. After some time has passed, they would serve pitas to bigger circles to announce the birth to the whole world.

Number 40 is highly valued among Turks. “Kırk Uçurma” (flying of “40”) is still an important tradition. For Kırk Uçurma, the mother and her baby would stay home for 40 days and then they visit the family elders first, where they would be greeted and welcomed with gifts. To protect the baby from evil spirits and as something precious, a Quran and a piece of bread would be placed in its crib.

After 40 days from birth, the Kyrgyz people would bath the baby with 40 spoons of water, bake 40 breads and give them to 40 people. These Kırk Uçurma traditions continue to this day, but the important thing is that they are followed by Turkic people from the Far East to the Western Mediterranean region no matter what religion they believe in, what language they speak or on which geography they live.

Another place, where the number 40 is highly valued is my hometown, Erzurum. When a mother candidate could not have children, water would be brought to her from “Kırk Değirmenler” (Forty windmills), and she would bath in it, believing this would help her bare child.

There is another tradition called “Ikra Kesme” (Ikra is children’s hiccups, and the phrase means “cutting hiccups”), which is again very interesting. If the baby’s hiccups did not stop, parents would put some cheese in a bread and brought the baby and the cheese sandwich to a Saraç, a leather maker, who would then cut out a moon shaped leather piece and give it to the parents. It is believed that if this leather piece is hung on its crib, Ikra would stop.

In Erzurum, if the child cannot walk even though its age has come, a gılik (a bagel-like bread) would be baked and the child would sit on it. Two children known for their agility would hold the bread from the opposite sides. It is believed that the child would be able to walk after those two children run off with gılik pieces.

“Köstek Çözme”, another Erzurum tradition which means “shackle breaking”, is the ceremony for children who often stumble and fall. Just like the traditions from Middle Asia, a smaller gılik would be baked and legs of the child would be tied together. After cutting the tie, the gılik would be rolled through the legs. A speedy young boy would grab the gılik and run away, so that the child would not fall from now on.

There is a similar ceremony in Kazakhstan where the child is asked to walk on a short carpet after the tie is cut, and to choose an item among several laid out on the carpet by the elders. The item the child selects symbolises her/his future. For instance, I was born in a bakery. It is certain that I will be spending the rest of my life working with flour.

A first-step bun or a “foal” bun is baked when the baby takes its first steps. Breaking or tearing the bread is actually a sacrificial tradition. These breads are baked and broken around all Turkic cultures, with a variety of different customs accompanying them.

There are also breads which are baked in bite-sized buns or buttery and sugary breads as well as milky breads. There are many regions where the bread is decorated to be charming. Then why don’t we bake a first step bun ourselves? I have a grandniece, Niliş, so I can practice for her.  

Ingredients:

  • 1000 grams of flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 30 grams of salt
  • 70 grams of sugar
  • 200 grams of ghee (clarified butter)
  • 330 grams of water

Method:

  • Set aside the yolk from one of three eggs
  • Put all dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl.
  • Make a hole in the middle.
  • Crack the eggs in the hole, add ghee and water.
  • Start mixing and kneading.

(Generally, I like to add the ghee/butter at the end of mixing, but since the bun doughs has eggs and oil instead of water as in bread doughs, it is harder to mix, so I added the ghee at the beginning.)

  • After the dough has come together and has a smooth surface, sprinkle some flour on top and let it rest for 20 minutes, covering it with a towel or cloth.
  • To split the dough to equal portions, first make a giant-bagel-like dough and then tear it apart to make a long baguette shaped dough.
  • Roll up approximately 40-50 grams of small dough balls.
  • Place the dough balls in a circular and greased baking pan (I used one with 30 cm diameter).
  • Let it rest for the second rise for approximately 30 minutes.
  • To decorate, choose toppings from whatever seeds or nuts you have at home.
  • Brush the egg yolk wash on the dough balls.
  • Decorate the dough balls with your toppings. I put almonds on the outer circle, then hazelnuts, walnuts. Sprinkle the seeds on top, as desired.
  • No rest this time! Straight to a pre-heated, 200 degrees C oven for around 20-30 minutes. Watch closely as the top browns.

Oh my, my! Those who could grab a piece wished that these traditions would continue. We also have traditional breads for death, birth and wedding ceremonies. Contemporary birthday cakes are the evolution of these breads. The sponge cake used in these celebratory cakes called originally Pan de Espana, which is a Spanish bread. Although the breaking and spreading of breads during these occasions have changed much around the globe, they still have the leading role in the ceremonies.