Tonight there’ll be no Skittles, no Hersey’s Kisses, no Snickers.
At least not for the recently returned Istanbul travelers.
No, along with whatever Halloween cocktails we invent—black vodka, anyone?—we’ll be back on the Bosphorus, in spirit at least, nibbling a few squares of lokum—better known in the West as Turkish Delight.
There will be rose-scented lokum, of course, but also the divine double-roasted pistachio and chunky hazelnut.
I’ve been intrigued by the idea of this exotic confection since I was ten years old, reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on a hot summer afternoon at the pool. Do you remember how the wicked White Witch cast a spell over Edmund by feeding him a box of enchanted Turkish Delight ? “Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious,” wrote Lewis.
Many years later, I stumbled across a carton of lokum imported from England. That should have been a tip-off.
I opened the tightly sealed box with anticipation, lifted a cube dusted with powdered sugar and took a bite. It was vile: hard, stale, horridly sweet. It stuck to my teeth, made my throat clutch, and tasted of cornstarch. Whatever flavor it originally had was lost in a morass awfulness.
But a shop in Istanbul changed my mind.
Almost anyone will tell you that the legendary Haci Bekir in Eminonu is the place to go for lokum. And maybe so. But Selin took us to Cafer Erol, a Kadikoy sweet shop that, like Haci Bekir, has been making Turkish Delight since the days of the Ottoman sultans. It is bejeweled candy heaven: Mirrors reflect a dazzling array of marzipan fruits and vegetables, big brass-lidded jars of hard sugar candies, and slabs of rich almond paste. There are chocolate bonbons and pralines.
But I made straight for the luminous trays of Turkish Delight. The flavors were stunning: Besides rose, pistachio and hazelnut, there was lokum flavored with cinnamon and clove, one filled with fresh kaymak or clotted cream, and another—a favorite of Engin Akin, a cooking teacher and writer featured in the 2007 Saveur 100—with orange peel, eggplant and green walnut. In all, there are thirty varieties in almost any flavor you can imagine.
These exotic sweets are served in covered dishes to keep them fresh—I lusted for one with a gleaming brass top and turquoise enamel bowl, but it was big enough to serve 30 people and I couldn’t imagine ever having enough edible lokum to fill it.
To bite into lokum is to sink your teeth into an adult candy that has the irresistible allure of a childhood sweet. (You could call it “gummies for grownups.”) Like many Turks, I adore rose-scented sweets, so I came away with a half kilo of the popular rose-infused variety, glowing pale pink through a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. The rose flavor is subtle, the candy itself soft and tender. Left in the mouth for a few minutes—an impossibility, I admit—it might slowly dissolve into syrupy deliciousness.
It is very, very sweet.
The nut-filled Turkish Delight, on the other hand, balances all that sugary sweetness with the richness of toasted nuts. I fell for the double-roasted pistachio, pale green meat shining through the translucent golden “jelly.” Chopped roasted hazelnuts float in the center of another variety.
The word lokum comes from the Arabic luqma which means “morsel” or “mouthful,” but there is also a Turkish phrase, rahat-ul hulkum, which means “the thing that relaxes the throat,” or as Wikipedia puts it, “contentment of the throat.” In English it was once translated as “lumps of delight.”
The candy, which has been made in Turkey since the 15th century, has gone through various changes of ingredients. Once sweetened with honey and grape molasses, and thickened with flour, during the 19th century it was made with beet sugar and starch. These days, most published recipes call for fine white sugar boiled with water, thickened with cornstarch.
But time and patience are as important as the ingredients. According to Cafer Erol’s brochure, “The most important criteria is to cook and stir it for a sufficient period of time.” The confectioners first cook small batches of ingredients in “special” old copper cauldrons for 2.5 to 3 hours, during which time the mixture “gains its consistency.” Flavorings such as nuts, spices or fruits are added, then the candy is poured into molds. “The waiting phase begins at this point. After about 10 hours, the Turkish delight is cut into pieces and becomes ready for presentation.”
If you, like the Brooklyn father mentioned in Wednesday’s New York Times, see sugar as “crack cocaine,” Turkish Delight is definitely not for you. But I readily admit to a new addiction for this strangely appealing, oddly delightful candy.
Contentment, indeed: Have a sweet Halloween!