Some of you may be thinking; “surely everyone knows what Turkish delight is!” Right? Well, yes you are right. Kind of. Most people do recognise “Turkish delight”, have an idea of what it is and can at the very least describe it along the lines of; “those little-sweet-fragrant-soft candy things from Narnia“. Often adding “I like the rose and lemon Turkish delights” to their vague description of the delightful candy having been acquainted already.
But let’s be honest, in our day and age of food awareness where we are constantly reminded of what exactly goes into the making of our foods and its journey to our plates, that’s not much of an accurate description. Nor does it do justice for the national treasure which has now almost become part of the Turkish identity outside of Turkey, synonymous with anything good to come out of Turkey.
So, what is Turkish delight? And how did it come to be known as such globally? Putting aside all the puns and semantics and delving into the real history of Turkish delight reveals an intriguing story of how this simple, yet delightful recipe managed to capture hearts and sweet-tooths all over the world.
First up, the “Turkish delight myth”.
The Turkish Delight Myth
There are several stories about the history of Turkish delight. First and most popular as well as one of the most mythical being that an Ottoman Sultan angrily summoned his Şekercibaşı (chef pâtissier) in the Imperial kitchens at Topkapi Palace and ordered him to concoct a delicacy that was sweet, soothed the throat and not hard on his tooth upon chipping his tooth on hard candy. Yet this account, as well as the less mention worthy account of another Sultan (or who knows, it could’ve been the same one) carrying with him Turkish delights to woo the ladies. As fun as it is to imagine the Sultan grilling his kitchen staff over hard candy or wooing potential lovers with candy, these conflicting accounts are far from truth due to lack of documented historical accounts, and widely disputed amongst Turkish historians and considered myth.
However, the delicacy has indeed been around for centuries. The mastery of getting just the right viscous consistency passed down from generation to generation, keeping true to traditional recipes, ingredients and methods, growing in sophistication with well over 100 different variety of flavours. This time all documented.
The Real Turkish Delight
The oldest, most well documented account of Turkish delight traces back to an Anatolian man named Bekir Efendi, later titled Hacı Bekir following the completion of his pilgrim duties. Hacı Bekir migrated to Istanbul to establish his now legendary confectionery shop in 1777, which still stands today in Bahçekapı district. In fact this very first shop of Haci Bekir and him serving an Ottoman mother with her two young children were the subject of a watercolour painting by Amadeo Preziosi, a Maltese painter known for his paintings of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans in the 18th and 19th century. The painting is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Hacı Bekir’s soft and fragrant lokums quickly became popular with the locals and it didn’t take long before word reached the Palace. He was soon appointed Şekercibaşı (chef pâtissier) of the Imperial Kitchens of Topkapı Palace, which churned out daily feasts for the residents of the palace including the royal family and the prominent diplomats of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. Since, Hacı Bekir’s Turkish delight recipe has won countless awards both at home in Turkey and abroad in Europe, which has adorned the walls of his shop along with Ottoman Baroque inspired branding for almost 300 years.
Lokum “Turkish Delight” in Europe
Turkish delight is known amongst Turks and much of Middle Eastern cultures as Lokum (from the Arabic influenced Ottoman Turkish word rahatü’l-hulkum meaning ‘eases the throat or comforting to the throat’).
With the influx of European travellers to the exotic land of Ottoman Empire in the early 19th centry, travellers were introduced to Lokum in Istanbul and brought back boxes of the lumps of delight with them. However, the term Turkish Delight was coined by the British merchants who first imported the little morsels of soft candy coated in sugar dust on the shores of Great Britain as its fame grew. Eventually, Lokum made its way to the handkerchiefs of the European elite, as a rare, expensive delicacy to be savoured and only accessible to those in the right circles.
So Turkish delight made its way into popular western literature in the 1800’s and appeared in many diaries kept by those who have had the fortune of stumbling upon these “lumps of delight”. In fact, much earlier than the popular novel by C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, in the book The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens references Turkish delights as Rosa Bud mentions a shop “Lumps of Delights” to Edwin, elaborating “a Turkish sweetmeat, sir”.
Many other notable travellers share their experiences of the sweet, amongst which an American Naval physician named James de Kay notes in his memoir of his visit to Turkey in the first half of 19th century:
. . . a delicious pasty-mass which melts away in the mouth, and leaves a fragrant flavour behind. It is, as we are informed, made by mixing honey with the inspissated juice of the fresh grape, and the Turks, who esteem it highly, call it rahat locoom or repose to the throat, a picturesque name to which it seems fairly entitled.
Frenchman painter traveller Pretextat-Lecomte studied the Turkish arts and crafts as well as cuisine during his stay in Istanbul and has probably the most detailed account of the traditional means by which the best Turkish delight was concocted. You can find his account of authentic Turkish delight recipe on our blog.
In hindsight, the British merchants could not have come up with a better name for the tasty treat we’re now accustomed to refer to as Turkish delight.
What is in a Turkish Delight?
The basic ingredients of Turkish delight are corn starch, caster sugar and various oils and flavourings along with any dried fruits or nuts according to taste. Most modern iterations have also taken to using gelatine as a setting agent and you will find plenty of recipes which advise its use, this is blasphemous to any artisan who’s in the business of making authentic Turkish delight, the traditional way. You can only achieve the perfect texture using this traditional method, resulting in a gradually melting delight as it soothes its way towards ones throat, slowly releasing a heavenly mix of flavours from the oils and fruits.
How is Turkish Delight made?
Turkish delights secret lies in the arduous process of slowly boiling cornstarch and sugar syrup over low heat for several hours, resulting in dense jelly like sticky morsels of flavoured candy. The soft jelly mixture is then cut into small cubes and dusted with icing sugar. To achieve the perfectly soft, disappear in the mouth Lokum, you’ll need this special Turkish delight recipe, reported by a French traveller, who actually witnessed it be prepared in the Imperial Kitchens.
Flavours of Turkish Delights
A whole variety of flavours are now available, most traditional and oldest being rosewater and orange blossom water flavoured Turkish delight. Turks choice of delight are layered with crushed nuts, most popular being roasted pistachios, hazelnuts and coconut flakes added into the mixture and rolled layer by layer to create a sushi like presentation.
There are well over a hundred varieties and combinations of Turkish delight (possibly even more, including limited edition or seasonal flavours mostly made during months of Ramadan). Most popular Turkish delight flavours are rose, lemon, orange, pomegranate, mint, mastic, pistachio, hazelnut, walnut and cream. More recently chocolate covered Turkish delight as well as other exotic flavours such as coffee have also gained in popularity.
How best to enjoy Turkish Delight
Turkish delight in Turkey is mostly consumed in moderate, and on special occasions, as is custom to bring Turkish delight to a joyous occasion such as the birth of a newborn, friend and family visits during the festive months of Ramadan.
However, having Turkish coffee is also an occasion for the Turks and that is an occasion often accompanied with some luxury Turkish delight than not. Turkish coffee is usually served with a cube or two of double roasted pistachio delights at most establishments and households. It is customary to have lokum before and after coffee, cleansing the palette with water each time in between.
But really, for me, there’s no better way to enjoy lokum than with a good cup of Turkish coffee and good company, by the Bosphorus. Which flavour is your favourite and how do you enjoy yours? Tell us in the comments section below!