With most classic dishes, the precise origin story is lost in the mists of history. With Turkish delight we can actually put a date on it. In the year 1777, a bunch of British businessmen visiting Istanbul gave the name to a sticky sweet they discovered in the shop of a cook named Bekir. He was calling it lokum, which was his abbreviation of an Arab phrase meaning ‘throat relaxant’.
He told them he had created it when the sultan put out the word to confectioners that he was looking for a sweet that wouldn’t break his teeth. Bekir won the contest with lokum flavoured with rosewater, and was appointed chef pâtissier in the kitchen of the Topkapı Palace. He then went on to open his own shop in the Bahçekapı district, near the railway station where the Orient Express ended its journey.
The British businessmen started selling Bekir’s product in their homeland, and his shop became a place of pilgrimage for tourists from Europe. Confectioners all over Turkey (and Greece) started copying his lokum, flavouring it with seasonal ingredients from their neighbourhood. A painting of a turbaned Bekir feeding lokum to children (The Confectioner by Preziosi) now hangs in the Louvre, and the original shop, beautifully restored, is classified as a protected site. The people behind the counter will tell you lokum was the favourite sweet of Picasso, who said it helped his concentration.
I’ve attempted to reproduce the original recipe here, but to be honest, I’m not partial to rosewater (like most Turks). You can add any flavouring you like. I sometimes replace the rosewater with mint and cinnamon. A popular version replaces the almonds with twice-roasted pistachios. A friend of mine in Bodrum does a great version with the juice from local satsuma mandarins. Guess what they use in the Black Sea town of Safranbolu (the name means ‘plenty of saffron’).
Line a quarter gastronorm tray (
Remove the tray from the fridge and remove the gel block by lifting the edge of the muslin. Place the block on a board, peel off the cloth and then slice into
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