The first time I tried Turkish Delights was more than a decade ago.
I was still a kid in Southeast Asia, increasing wealth allowed more and more Singaporeans to travel and explore new cultures outside the East/South Asian dichotomy. And with that came souvenirs from their new trips and Turkish Delights were one of those interesting new goodies that returned from West Asia.
I didn’t like it.
It was cloyingly sweet, cold and tough and had the irritating ability to stick to your teeth. It almost felt like a box of diabetes-in-waiting, and it didn’t even taste good (unlike bubble tea, which is ‘frankly’ diabetes-in-a-cup).
But that was all i knew about Turkish desserts, which did not square with the way people talk about Turkish desserts.
Then I went to Istanbul, and tried Turkish delights one more time – this time to go on the quest for the best Turkish Delights and desserts to see what it really was all about.
And my view changed.
Let’s start with Turkish delights.
Turkish delights were brought to the market in 1777 when Bekir Effendi brought the Anatolina recipe to Constantinople. He set up a confectionary and then started selling these confectionaries in the city. It as this Willy Wonka of Turkish sweets who created a new confectionary made of starch and sugar.
A Turkish delight is any sort of confection based on based on a gel of starch and sugar.
Now the Turks would never call their own sweets Turkish Delights (just like how the Greeks would never tell you to beware of them bearing gifts), the stroy goes that the dessert was invented in Anatolia, and then brought to then Constantinople to be sold. The original name of the confectionary was rahat ul-hukum, meaning throat soother, and was shortened to lokum by the locals. A british tourist fell in love with the confectionary, it was delightful(!), brought it back to the UK but was then stumped over pronouncing its name. So he called it a delight, a Turkish delight.
[People were already obsessed with food shows a century ago. It’s a winning recipe!]
And then the name caught on around the world, and spread to much of Europe – following the growth of the Ottoman Empire.
While we never made it to Haci Bekir, we tried the sweets are some of the most popular brands in the city. Now I’d be doing Turkish desserts a vast disservice if all the Turkish delights I talked about were just lokum. Turkish desserts are broad sweep of textures and flavours.
First up, Hafiz Mustafa. Founded in 1864, Hafiz Mustafa is an institution in Istanbul. It has since grown into a big brand with some very fancy looking cafes selling all their confectionery. It was there that I learnt why the confectionery I tried as a kid was not good – Turkish confectionery like lokum cannot be refrigerated if not they would lose their springiness and gelatinous texture.
All their confectionary were great, from Baklava (a rich, sweet dessert pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with syrup or honey),
to kunefe (a traditional Middle Eastern dessert made with thin noodle-like pastry, or alternatively fine semolina dough, soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup, and typically layered with cheese, or with other ingredients such as clotted cream or nuts),
to sticky Turkish ice cream (dondurma, a mastic ice cream)*.
Another famous brand is Haci Serif, opened on 1938.
Once again some great desserts, but this time that had an additional dessert that no other place seemeed to sell – Cold Ice Cream with Warm Helva. Helva is a dense sweet confectionary found in West Asia and East Europe. Made up of ground almonds this dish was an experience of textural contrasts – warm versus cold, hard and sticky versus soft and grainy. Very fun to eat!
I take back the impression I had when I was a kid, Turkish delights are awesome!
When they are well-made that is.
ON THE MAP (Hafiz Mustafa)
ON THE MAP (Haci Serif)