If I were to ask you how you felt about fermented yoghurt and crushed wheat, what would you say? Would you pull a face, or would you know what I was talking about? If you are the former, then I am here to help. The latter? You don’t really need me, but welcome!
Trahana (the Greek word), or tarhana (the Turkish word), is a way of preserving dairy. You have too much milk? Then you make yoghurt, mix it with cracked wheat, mould it into shapes, and you dry it in that glorious island sunshine, probably with a goat nudging you until it knocks you over. They do that. Then in the winter, when you are cold, and need a hug, you boil up some water, pop in some of those shapes that have the finger prints of your mama or sister on them, and let them cook until the grains have swelled into a thick almost porridge to which you add fresh lemon, olive oil, and halloumi cheese. This is a soup which will warm you from the inside out, stomach and soul.
Trahanas is the ingredient that goes into making the soup. I will say now, it is not pretty soup. It is a comfort, it is sustaining and very filling.
Cypriot trahanas. Turkish tarhana. Egyptian kishk. Iraqui kushuk. Kurdish tarxane. Persians, Bulgarians, Iraqis, Cypriots, Greeks, Armenians, Egyptians – we all eat it, we all love it. We’re none of us so different at all, really.
Cracked wheat and yoghurt at its most basic form. Dried in the sun, then revived when needed. Some add eggs, some add halloumi. Some use chicken stock, some just water.
I remember mum making this when I was small, and me being excited about it because I thought she was making avgolemono, and then being disappointed when it wasn’t.
This is heavier, and possibly more bland in a way, but it also has that back tang of the yoghurt to lift it. It has a slightly granular texture, but it is soft at the same time.
I only acquired a proper addiction for it when I brought some back from the markets in Cyprus. It was golden in colour, instead of the usual beige, and it looked….well it just looked more appealing. I’d just had a wisdom tooth out and was on liquids for two weeks, so the thought of a nourishing, substantial but above all SOFT soup was very appealing to me. As I was able to eat more, I added cubes of halloumi to it, bulking it out even further.
On a winter night, a big bowl of this with some cheese and a bit of bread would leave you wanting nothing more than a blanket and a good sleep.
Trahana has tanginess at its heart. It has the sourness of the yoghurt, tempered by the nutty blandness of wheat, and on that base you can build. Use chicken stock instead of water, and you’ve upped the heartiness already. You can pop in sprigs of fresh herbs if you like – a few leaves of oregano here, an oval of mint there – and when the shapes have broken down and dispersed all through the liquid, you throw in grated tomato, or not, garlic, or not. Cubes of halloumi/hellim definitely for that extra dairy hit, and the chew that only halloumi gives. If you’re feeling fancy, you can fry those cheese cubes first.
It can be hard to find*, and I do apologise for that, but it is worth seeking out. Not just to make the soup, though that is reason enough for Cypriots, but gound finely it can also act as a flavourful binder in vegetable bakes, and works as a crunchy coating on potato cakes, fishcakes, chicken fillets. Courgette and feta fritters are delicious anyway, but add in a few spoons of ground trahana and you have more tang for your Turkish lira, that’s for sure. I admit to bringing back bags of it from Cyprus in my suitcase, as it keeps for EVER. That, after all, is rather the point of it.
Enough stock for however much soup you want to make, so:
For 6 cups of chicken stock, you would add 1.5 cups of trahanas.
2 large tomatoes, grated (if you want a tomatoey soup)
1 clove of garlic, crushed or grated (again optional though I realise some might think that sacrilege)
Salt to taste – careful as some stocks already have salt
Bring the stock to the boil, add your trahanas, then simmer for 30 minutes until the trahana has become soft and dispersed into the soup. It will thicken up later, don’t worry.
Stir in the tomato and garlic, add your halloumi cubes, and then simmer for another 30 minutes.
Serve hot, with a squeeze of lemon, and some bread for dunking.
NOTE: It will thicken up a lot as it cools, so just add a little more water when you reheat it. All will be well.