Saturday, May 15, 2010

Turkish Delight: The Confection of the Sultans

Istanbul is a city that never fails to enchant: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the ethereally beautiful Topkapı Palace, the majestic Bosporus; all of these elements of the city, and many more, truly take my breath away. Fantastic savory dishes and sweets can be found everywhere, and one of my all time favorites is the habit-forming candy “Turkish Delight.” This heavenly confection traces its origins to Anatolia around the 14th or 15th century. The fragrant, gelatinous candy was originally prepared with either honey, or a syrup derived from reduced grape must called pekmez, which was then thickened with flour. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt, and sugar produced from Egyptian sugar cane became the primary sweetening agent, transforming the once humble candy into a rich, chewy treat prepared for the sultans. The Ottomans called the confection Rahatü’l hulkum—which translates loosely as “that which soothes the throat.” The name was eventually shortened to the Turkish word lokum, which is still used today. The sugar was boiled down with a small amount of water until it became an amber-colored syrup that was then thickened. The caramelized sugar gave the candy a soft, toasty flavor (this simple lokum, called sade, is still made today). Later, however, exotic ingredients such as an essence made from fragrant rose petals were added (this type of lokum called Güllü, remains a popular flavor, and is my absolute favorite!)
In the 19th century, lokum began to be sold to the public in small shops and in the markets, and when cornstarch replaced the use of flour, the texture was perfected and the creamy, silky consistency that resulted made the sweet even more popular—as did the addition of other flavoring elements such as pistachios, citrus fruits, mint and vanilla. According to popular legend, a British tourist traveling in Istanbul at this time purchased a case of lokum, which he took back with him to London. The exported sweet was an instant hit with candy-loving Victorians, and when asked what the delicious candy was called, he gave it its current sobriquet, “Turkish Delight.”
Two of the major companies that produce lokum in Istanbul are Haci Bekir and Hazer Baba. The former is named for Turkey’s most famous confectioner, Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, who was the personal lokumi to the sultan in the latter part of the 18th century (he is also credited for being the first to substitute cornstarch for flour, thus bringing the sweet to it apogee). Five generations later, his family continues to make Turkey’s finest lokum, and other traditional types of Turkish sweets, that they sell in their elegant shops. The Hazer Baba Company produces lokum, and other types of candy and spices, that they sell in the famous Egyptian Market. Less boutique oriented than the Haci Bekir shop, Hazer Baba sells a dizzying array of flavors such as: apricot and honey; ginger, violet, peach, melon, amaretto, coriander, and a variety of chocolate-coated flavors—along with the more traditional rose and pistachio. Both companies export their products outside of Turkey, but Hazer Baba has a significantly larger international distribution.
If you’ve never tried this luscious sweet, you're in for a real surprise. It’s soft, silky and rich, but it's not cloyingly sweet. It’s one of those foods that virtually transporting, sending you off in a reverie of sultans, opulent palaces, imposing mosques and minarets that puncture the clouds, while the sun slowly descends behind the Golden Horn....

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