Glimpses into the History of Turkish Confectionery

Glimpses into the  History of Turkish Confectionery

Turkey has been famous for its confectionery for centuries, Turkish delight being the most eminent example. This is a fascinating subject, not just because of the flavours to be enjoyed, but because in the past, and to some extent today, sweets played a symbolic role in every part of private and public life.

Sweet confections, which includes those made with flour, were eaten to celebrate birth, marriage and death; religious holidays and political allegiance. The extraordinary innovation and diversity of Turkish sweets and puddings is not just because people had a sweet tooth, but the spiritual importance of sweetness. This dates back long before the Ottoman Empire, to Central Asia. As far back as the 8th century people in Samarkand rubbed sugar on the lips of newly born children so that they would talk sweetly, and in the 13th century the mystic philosopher Mevlana used sugar and sweetness to symbolise faith and love of God. 

Ever since sugar refining was developed in India around 300 BC, foods made with sugar have tended to move from East to West. This trend continued with Turkish delight and fondant in the 19th century, when the rise of chocolate started another tide of influence in the opposite direction.


“Rock sugar” or “rock candy” was well known in Europe until the early 20th century, but has now virtually died out. The oldest mention is in an 11th century Arabic text in a recipe for bookbinder’s glue. The crystals are grown by leaving warm sugar syrup in a special pan crisscrossed by strings. Rock sugar used to be made by Turkish confectioners until a few years ago, but today all rock sugar is imported from Iran, where it can be made more cheaply.


One of the earliest sweets was the pulled sugar stick that in England was known as “pennet” (from the Arabic fanid). Although today this is called “Edinburgh rock” and there is a story about Edinburgh rock being invented by a Scottish confectioner, Alexander Ferguson, this sweet was actually introduced into Europe from the Arab world in the 13th century or even earlier. Turkish records of pennet go back to the 14th century, when this sweet was called stick sugar (şeker-i kalem) or by the name still used today “cheese sugar” (peynir şekeri). In Istanbul in the early 19th century these were made in various flavourings, such as vanilla, rose, orange and cinnamon.
Other sweets introduced into Europe from the East in the medieval period are sugar almonds and marzipan and nougat.

Ottoman Period


Nougat was introduced by the Arabs into Spain, but also found its way into Europe a second time via Ottoman Turkey. The sweet in the picture -page 45- is nougat on a stick as traditionally sold at fairs in Austria and parts of Germany, where it is still known as Türkischer honig (Turkish honey).


The sweet called çevirme or lohuk was originally a medicinal preparation sweetened with sugar to make it palatable. The active herbs and drugs were replaced by flavourings such as mastic, fruit juices, flowers (eg. violets) or nuts, and it became a soft sweetmeat. A German confectioner, Friedrich Unger, who was royal confectioner to Otto I, the first king of Greece, visited Istanbul in 1835 and wrote a book giving detailed instructions about making lohuk. He explained that his readers “will be able to make all kinds of lohuk scherbet with the greatest of ease,” and listed more than 30 different flavours.

Around 1870 lohuk suddenly appeared in Europe under the French name fondant. Almost certainly it had been introduced either by Unger or a confectioner who had read his book. Unger himself said that some of the oriental sweetmeats could be “new articles for our confectioners’ shops”, and that is exactly what happened. Apart from the greater time spent stirring lohuk, the ingredients and method are exactly the same as for fondant. Because it is stirred for so long, lohuk is also known as çevirme (stirred). In Greek it is known as “spoon sweet”, because in Ottoman times lohuk was offered to guests before the coffee arrived. 
This custom has largely died out in Turkey, but continues in some parts of Greece.


Another medical preparation called cevariş was the origin of this crystallised sweet called “hard sherbet” (sert şerbet). It was eaten as a sweetmeat at a banquet celebrating the circumcision of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s sons Bayezid and Cihangir in 1539. Six kinds were served at the banquet - pistachio, cherry almond, lemon, coconut and gold leaf. 

This sherbet cake was also used as a ready sherbet mix. It was made by professional confectioners in many different flavourings (orange, cherry, strawberry, sour grape, apricot, cinnamon, pistachio, bitter almond etc.) and diluted with water to make sherbet drinks.
Drinking sherbet became fashionable in Europe in the late 16th century, spreading from Turkey first to Italy, and from there to France and England. In 1662 the Great Turk Coffee House in London served sherbets “made in Turkie” perfumed with lemons, roses, and violets. Import lists record that this sherbet was exported in boxes; so it was probably in the form of lozenges or circles with fluted edges, as they were made in Istanbul.
In the first half of the 1850s a mixture of carbonate of soda, cream of tartar, sugar and lemon essence began to be used for lemonade sold in the streets of London. This fizzy version of Turkish sherbet became popular not only as a drink, but in powder form as sweets like sherbet fountains, which English children still love today.


Turkish delight as we know it today was first made in the late 18th century, and became so popular with foreign visitors to the Ottoman Empire that in the middle of the century the famous Turkish confectioner Hacı Bekir began exporting it to France and England. At first Turkish delight was known in English as “lumps of delight” or “morsels of delight”. In 1870 Charles Dickens described a new “Lumps-of-Delight shop” that had opened in London in his novel Edwin Drood. The earliest record of the term “Turkish delight” is in 1873 in Mrs Bailley’s account of her travels in Izmir and Istanbul.

European confectioners tried unsuccessfully to imitate Turkish delight, but instead of starch they tried to copy the jelly-like consistency using gelatine. Starch was an unfamiliar ingredient in European cuisine until the late 19th century. Instead of being eaten it was used to powder wigs, which is why the royal confectioner Friedrich Unger used the term haarpuder - hair powder - in his recipes for Turkish delight. 

Pelte is a pudding made of fruit juice thickened with starch, and is one of two starch-based sweetmeats that were the forerunners of Turkish delight. In the 17th century, pelte makers advertised their wares as rahatü’l-hulkum, meaning “ease to the throat”, which later became the name of Turkish delight. In France Turkish delight was known as ratacomb, after this original Turkish name.


The other sweetmeat that gave rise to Turkish delight is tatlı sucuk. This is made by threading walnuts, almonds or pistachios on a string and dipping them several times into hot grape juice thickened with starch. The strings are then hung up to dry and will keep for at least a year. This is still a popular snack throughout Turkey.

Tatlı sucuk is first mentioned by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century, who saw it made with almonds and pistachio nuts at Baalbek in the Lebanon. A century later, in 1433, Bertrandon de la Brocquiere described this sweetmeat being made with walnuts in Afyonkarahisar, in Central Turkey. In 1811, four centuries on, Edward Daniel Clarke saw Turkish sailors eating it at İğneada on the Black Sea coast west of Istanbul: ‘In those coffeehouses may be seen groups of Turkish mariners ... eating a sort of sweetmeat, in shape like a sausage, made of walnuts or almonds, strung upon a piece of twine, and dipped in the concocted syrup of new wine, boiled until it has acquired the consistence of a stiff jelly and bends in the hand like a piece of Indian rubber.’

The Rev. Robert Walsh (1828), first came across it in the town of Çorlu west of Istanbul: ‘Their only manufacture is a confection in great request among the Turks; it consists of walnuts enclosed in a sweet gelatinous substance, made from the inspissated juice of grapes: it is formed into long cylindrical rolls, like black puddings, and so transported to Constantinople, where it is eaten in great quantities. We saw some cart loads of this confection leaving the town.’


In Turkey circular wafers sandwiched together with a filling of soft nougat were known as “paper helva” (kağıt helvası) and were made until recently, but they have now been superseded by tasteless factory made wafers.

Wafers like thin waffles made with a decorated iron mould have a history going back at least 1400 years. A wafer iron dating from the 6th or 7th century was found at Carthage. Wafers were particularly associated with the Catholic church, as unleavened bread used for the Eucharist.


A kind of fritter made with an iron mould is known in Turkey as demir tatlısı “iron pudding”. Like the wafer this also has a long history in Europe, and the earliest recipes and illustrations of the moulds are in an Italian cookery book written in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi, who was cook to Pope Pius V. Scappi calls the iron moulds “rosette irons” and explains that they were made in the form of “lions, eagles, knots and other fanciful shapes.” From Italy these fritters were introduced to England, and Robert May describes them as “fritters of arms”. It is an interesting that in Van in eastern Turkey families had their own distinctive fritter designs, somewhat similar to a coat of arms. Mrs Beeton has two illustrations of fritter irons in her Book of Household Management published in 1861, although no recipe explaining how to use them. In the 1870s fritter irons described as “French fritter bakers” were illustrated in an American hardware catalogue. Demir tatlısı used to be widely made in provincial Turkey until recently, although today it survives in just a few provinces such as Erzurum, Uşak and Malatya.


Hollow lollipops known as horoz şekeri are made by pouring boiled sugar syrup into moulds, then pouring out the excess. The origin and history of these lollipops is still a mystery. They were made at home and sold in the street all over Turkey until recent years, but now only to be found in Bergama and Bursa. They were also made in England in the late 19th century.
In Turkey the moulds for these lollipops were made in innumerable different designs: trains, giraffes, donkeys, cockerels, rabbits, baskets and so on. The most interesting feature of the Turkish lollipops is that those in the form of cockerels often doubled as whistles. Street confectioners also sold sugar whistles, sometimes made in pairs, one producing a high and the other a low note. Known as miskal kamışı şekeri, they are recorded in the late Ottoman period.

One of the last of these lollipop makers is İbrahim Denizci. He lives in Bergama, where the local custom of buying them for children at weddings means there is still a demand for them. He inherited his moulds from his father, who was given the moulds and taught how to use them by an elderly lady from Soma, whose own father was a lollipop maker.


One of the oldest and most interesting Turkish sweets is pişmaniye or keten helvası, which has never been introduced to Europe. Its oldest Turkish name bîşmenî indicates a Persian origin, and it is still made in parts of Persia today. It also made its way to China, where a version made from rice flour is called “dragon’s beard”. In Turkey it has been known since the first half of the 15th century, when the first Turkish recipe – and probably the earliest existing recipe in any language - appears in a recipe book by the physician Şirvani.
The method of making keten helvası, which consists of gossamer fine threads, is complicated and laborious. So it is astonishing to learn that it was almost always made at home rather than by professional confectioners. Until a few years ago this sweetmeat was made in homes all over Turkey when visitors were invited on winter evenings. Usually men showed off their virtuosity by preparing the pulled sugar. This was then combined with flour roasted in butter to form wool-like threads. Although keten helvası has been compared to candy floss, there is no resemblance apart from the texture.

While Turkish confectionery like Turkish delight and baklava have never gone out of fashion, others have struggled to survive in a chocolate dominated world. Now, however, traditional sweets are enjoying a revival. So eat sweet talk sweet, as the Turkish saying goes.



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