Today is the first day of the Ramadan holiday, fondly nicknamed “Şeker Bayramı” in Turkish, literally meaning Sugar or Candy Holiday. Rightly so, because traditionally it is the time for everything sweet. Guests are served a cornucopia of sweets, dark Turkish coffee is accompanied by “lokum,” the ever-popular Turkish delight, trays of baklava are sent as presents, hard candy glistening like brightly colored gems glow heaped in crystal bowls, boxes of luxury chocolates are wrapped in elaborate packages as prestigious gifts, the list of sweet delights are endless. In short, it is candy crush time!
In the old times, the usual treat given to children by grandparents was a few lumps of Turkish delight, tucked in a handkerchief, preferably with a few coins included as a tip. This was before paper tissues were invented, in times when embroidered handkerchiefs were still good gifts, preferably silk for ladies, cotton for kids. Turkish delight has its protective dusting of starch, so it does not stick to the fabric, but after the rise in popularity of chocolate taking place of lokum, that kind of gift wrapping in a cloth handkerchief proved to be impractical. And when it comes to coins, in the past even small changes had a buying power, today they are only worth peanuts. Anyway, this kind of holiday treat evolved into new ways, even the Turkish delight has come on a long way, sometimes for the better, sometimes not so.
I always insist that the fascinating thing about Turkish delight is the texture first, and flavor second. Even the origins of the Turkish name “lokum” imply that textural quality. Lokum, as a word, is short for “rahat lokum,” which in turn is the simplified version of “rahat-ul-hulkum,” literally meaning easy on the throat, referring to its silky, velvety texture, gliding from the mouth down the throat. With its unmatched soft, yet bouncy mouth feel, lokum was the unrivaled confectionary of choice in Bayram before the arrival of chocolate that was brought with the winds of change by westernization. Lokum is basically only three ingredients; sugar, water, and starch, all cooked with continuous stirring just to the right consistency, and then either a flavoring and/or nuts are added. Here, the mastery of reaching the right consistency used to be the Ottoman confectioners’ secret which could never be imitated by their western counterparts. It required hours of toil and years of hard apprenticeship. When dropped from the back of the stirring paddle it had to form round bead-like droplets, not long spiky sword-like columns, and when dropped into a dusting of powdered sugar, it had to form perfectly round spheres without absorbing any particle of sugar.
When the right consistency is achieved, the cooked mass is then poured on a marble countertop dusted with starch. When cool and rested for up to a day, the lokum is ready to be cut into squares. A mix of assorted flavors cut into minuscule squares is called “kuş lokumu,” meaning bird’s lokum, implying its tiny size which can be pecked by a small bird. The assorted flavorings include rose, mint, mastic, lemon, orange, strawberry, or other fruits, or even spices like cinnamon. When no flavorings are used, then it is just nuts such as pistachios, walnuts, or hazelnuts added to the mixture. Even flavorless plain “sade lokum” used to be popular, just to enjoy the gliding textural quality. Those were the good old days when lokum was truly a pure delight in its own simplicity.
Nowadays, there is a tendency of mixing flavors and nuts together, though not traditional, if done tastefully, it works, otherwise, it can be horrendous, or even monstrous. Especially so, if coated by all kinds of things ranging from dried rose petals to dried safflower petals, or even questionable chocolate drops or kadaifi crumbles. Original lokum is all about less is more, but the new versions are moreish in every way. Once, even a coating of grated coconut was something new, nowadays almost a classic, and people used to call it “kürklü lokum,” meaning lokum with a fur coat. To my taste, either the fur coat, or the exaggerated coatings of all sorts, distract one’s attention from silky smoothness to contrasting textures, totally in opposition to the Turkish delight’s delightful raisons d’être!
Aylin Öney Tan, Turkey, cuisine, Eid al-Fitr,
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