Turkish Sweet Tooth: Baklava, Lokum and Dondurma
After a couple months in Istanbul, I started avoiding my reflection. But one morning, I accidentally caught a glimpse. Yep, a little chubbier than normal. And I was thrilled! Considering the rate at which I had been shoveling Istanbul’s infamous sweets into my honey-smeared mouth, “a little chubbier than normal” was perfectly acceptable.
Baklava is the most famous of Turkey’s desserts: a wonderful, honey-drenched concoction invented by renowned sweet-tooth Lucifer, Lord of Hell. Of course, we’re all familiar with the Biblical parable in which baklava was created by the devil to tempt Jesus from the path of righteousness. Jesus had been able to resist the first three temptations, but one whiff of baklava and he was undone.
(Maybe that’s not exactly how it went. But if the devil had thought to tempt Jesus with baklava, the Bible might have had a very different ending.)
Baklava is the quintessential Turkish treat, invented in the kitchens of the Topkap? Palace for the enjoyment of sultans. Layers of flaky dough separated by melted butter are filled with crushed nuts and baked, then drenched in honey or syrup. But such a spiritless description of this wonder-treat does it no justice. Allow me to try again. Baklava is the Beethoven’s Ninth of sweets; a perfect symphony of pleasure in which every ingredient comes together so harmoniously that upon finishing, you want to immediately experience it again. Baklava is so flawless, so beautiful, that it should be banned.
Lokum, better known as Turkish Delight, is another popular treat Jürgen and I consumed far too much of. These flavored, powdered, gummy cubes were invented in Constantinople in 1776 (the same year, I’ll proudly note, that America was invented), and immediately became a hit around the Ottoman Empire.
It can be made in a limitless number of flavors, with rosewater the most traditional. The best (and most expensive) lokum use honey as the sweetener, flour and water to create the gel, and then a wide variety of ingredients to finish the taste and give it color. We’ve had creamy walnut lokum, orange and lemon lokum, mint lokum rolled in coconut, hazelnut lokum, swirly chocolate lokum with a pistachio coating. And a lot more.
While eating baklava and lokum, I prefer to be at a table by myself, with one arm arched protectively around my plate. So they don’t provide anywhere near the fun factor as my favorite kind of Istanbul dessert: Turkish Ice Cream, or dondurma.
When you order a cone of the extra-thick, extra-creamy ice cream from a street vendor, prepare yourself for some teasing. The sellers, dressed in Ottoman fashion, are experts in the art of trickery. They’ll give you your cone, swipe it away, replace it with an empty cone, spin their stick to make you grasp at air, bop you on the nose with the ice cream, prick you in the side with the cone’s point, and all you can do is play along. I never tire of watching their antics, and have never seen them fail to coax a laugh out of whomever they’re teasing.
And the ice cream? Delicious. It’s the thickest, heaviest ice cream I’ve ever tasted; the kind you can actually bite into. In fact, it might be best eaten with a fork and knife.