Anatolian Kitchen - East
If you’ve ever eaten jellybeans, gummy bears, or cherry-red Swedish fish, you owe a debt to the nougat known by the romantic name Turkish Delight. The shimmery treat has spawned imitators in every culture around the world and was perfected in 18thcentury Ottoman Istanbul by a confectioner named Haci Bekir. Haci Bekir’s rose, orange, and pistachio-flavored confections gained the admiration of Sultan Mahmud II who anointed him with the esteemed title Helvacibasi, Chief Confectioner at Topkapi Palace.
The base for the Turkish Delight is a mixture of sugar, water, and cornstarch, slow-cooked and stirred until thick and translucent or glossy, depending on the added flavorings. Cool the mixture for several hours, cut it into squares, dust it with cardamom-scented powdered sugar, and voila! You’ve created an addictive, elegant sweet that stores and travels well. Traditionally, Turkish Delight is flavored with rosewater, but our nut-rich Turkish Delight makes a sophisticated treat that seduces even those who claim they never let sugar pass their lips.
In Turkey, the Middle East, Russia, Greece and the Balkans, Turkish Delight goes by the name rahat lokum, Arabic for comfortable or throat-soothing morsel, so called because in a hot and dusty landscape, a sugar-based candy with its humectant properties will calm a dry or sore throat.
In the 19th century, an Englishman who, like many travelers before him, fell in love with Istanbul and its hurly-burly streets, discovered rahat lokum in Haci Bekir’s shop hidden in one of the twisty lanes leading from Topkapi Palace down to the Bosporus. The Englishman so loved rahat lokum that when he shipped a case back to London, he gave it a new name, Turkish Delight. The jellied sweet captivated Londoners and novelists, including mystery writer Agatha Christie, and soon found its way into trendy households from Paris to Moscow. Haci Bekir’s Turkish Delight even made it to America in1893, debuting at the Chicago World’s Fair.
For thousands of years, the main ingredient in Turkish Delight – sugar – was considered precious and rare. Sugarcane was first cultivated in tropical New Guinea in the 8th Century BCE where its sap was gathered as a beverage and sweetener. By the 1st century CE, sugarcane was cultivated throughout India. Sacred Sanskrit texts included sugar as an essential ingredient in health tonics, where it was valued for, among other things, its store of magnesium, potassium and iron.
In 510 BCE, the Persian Emperor Darius invaded India and discovered “the reed that gave honey without bees,” bringing sugar cane to Persia. But it wasn’t until the Moors arrived in Spain in the 7th century that sugar was first cultivated and refined in Europe. The refining process removed any traces of molasses to create a pure white crystal. Later, in the 15th century, sailing under the protection of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, the explorer Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Americas establishing the first sugar cane plantations in what are now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Our many trips to Istanbul would not be complete without a stop at Haci Bekir’s famous sweet shop listed as one of the 100 oldest companies in the world. Still owned by Haci Bekir’s descendants, the shop can be found in Sultanahmet a short walk from Topkapi Palace. In the window of Haci Bekir on Hamidye Street, squares of Turkish Delight, piled high on ornate silver trays, shimmer in pale shades of rose, orange, and lemon. We enter a world where the warm air sweetens our breath and try the samples arranged on the counter, letting a dusting of powdered sugar settle on our fingertips.
Back home in our kitchens, we blend floral rosewater into sugar syrup. And later, stir in toasted pistachios. And later still, after the mixture has set, roll the candy in confectioners sugar laced with sensuous cardamom, imagining that had we met him, our version of Turkish Delight would have pleased Haci Bekir.