Turkish Delight: an International Treat for the Holidays!
This, my friends, is a candy with a story behind it. In fact, there are several stories meant to describe its genesis in the Ottoman Empire. In my research, the most popular story centers around an eighteenth-century sultan's demand that his confectioners create a new treat to appease his restless harem. Of all the sweets offered to the women, this soft, delicately flavored treat was the favorite. The lucky candy maker was promoted; no one reports if the harem became a more peaceful place to visit.
In an alternate version, the sultan cracked a tooth while eating one of the hard, sour candies common at the time, and expressed his disgust with all the sweets offered. He demanded a soft confection, and Turkish Delight was the resulting creation. There is even a well-known confectionary store in Istanbul whose owners claim to be the descendents of that first creator of Turkish Delight. It is a popular destination in the city even today!
Some researchers trace the origin of lokum even farther back, tracing it back to the 1500s, though it was made with honey at that time, and had a very different texture. The treat currently known as Turkish Delight is a more recent development, derived from earlier versions, but improved by the advent of sugar in the 1700s.
Probably the closest thing you'd find commercially available in the United States would be gumdrops, or the candied orange slices still available in shops that sell old-fashioned candies. I've noticed, since I became a mother, that candies in America have progressed from artificially fruit flavored treats, like lemon drops and Lifesavers, to progressively sour and even unpleasant candies. Children in my classroom dig through the treat box, chortling when they find packages of Sour Patch Kids, Atomic Fireballs, and Warheads (though I've yet to see a child that can endure a Warhead in his mouth for more than a few seconds. The candies inevitably end up in the trash can, but the child is heralded for his bravery in once again attempting to suck on one.)
In comparison, Turkish Delight is a very mild-flavored, soft candy. It is traditionally flavored with rose water, a very subtle and fragrant ingredient. Some recipes call for flavored oils or essences of citrus flavors. Many include dried fruits and nuts, though the basic candy is typically covered in a combination of powdered sugar and corn starch. To a palate accustomed to the strongly flavored candies commercially available in the United States, the subtleties of the floral and citrus flavors may be a bit understated.
Apparently, the palates of sugar-deprived children in England during World War II were finely tuned to appreciate any sweets at all! In C.S. Lewis' book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four Pensevie children are sent from London to the safety of the countryside, to live with a crusty old professor during World War II. During a game of hide-and-seek, they discover a magical world known as Narnia, through an enchanted wardrobe.
In the course of the story, which centers on the themes of betrayal and redemption, Edmund, the younger brother, encounters the White Witch. She is an evil sorceress who keeps Narnia in a perpetual state of "always winter and never Christmas," in the words of the poor faun, Mr. Tumnus. In their initial meeting, Edmund is introduced to her as the Queen of Narnia. A morose and jealous pre-teen, he is offered any treat he desires in order to glean information from him, and he chooses Turkish Delight.
"It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating," said the Queen presently. "What would you like best to eat?"
"Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty," said Edmund.
The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle onto the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.
While he was eating, the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one's mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive...
...At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves. But she did not offer him any more.
"Son of Adam, I should so much like to see your brother and your two sisters. Will you bring them to me?"
"I'll try," said Edmund, still looking at the empty box.
"Because if you did come again-bringing them with you of course-I'd be able to give you some more Turkish Delight. I can't do it now, the magic will only work once. In my own house it would be another matter." 
Even after Edmund learns the evil nature of the White Witch, and of the prophecy that four Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve would bring about her downfall, his longing for the enchanted Turkish Delight is so great that he continues in his course of betraying his brother and sisters. The witch repays his service by giving him only stale bread to eat, and forcing him to accompany him on her quest to kill his brother and sisters.
You would think that the role played by the candy in the story would cause some hesitation to taste it, but it had the opposite effect. When the movie hit theaters a few years ago, people who had never before heard of Turkish Delight began searching it out. Recipes and sources from which to order boxes of the treat proliferated on the internet. The usual movie endorsements followed, including boxes of Turkish Delight decorated with scenes from the movie.
My own first taste of Turkish Delight occurred years after I first discovered the book, but long before the 2005 movie renewed public interest in the candy. In college, I lived one year in an old, restored house, dubbed International House, on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as I learned about the cultures and preferences of students from around the world. I heard more languages, and smelled and tasted more cuisines, in that brief year than I had in my entire life up until that point. I became good friends with a young man from Turkey. Mehmet delighted in teasing me about the local food (as if dormitory food was the best the United States had to offer). He confessed that he was often homesick, and decorated his room with memorabilia from his home country. The two cravings he could not satisfy were for Turkish coffee, and Turkish Delight. His family sent him frequent care packages containing both.
I was not a coffee drinker at the time, but agreed to try the Turkish coffee. I was surprised to see him put coffee grounds directly into the little cups, and fill them with boiling water. He kept one pinky nail long for the express purpose of stirring up this potent brew. He explained how to drink the top layer of liquid first, and then strain the dregs with your teeth to avoid swallowing the grounds. I gagged on my first mouthful of the stuff, much to his amusement. I have since become much more versed in the joys of a cup of coffee, and would like to believe I could conduct myself with a little more dignity if faced with the same situation!
He also offered me one of his treasured pieces of Turkish Delight, carefully packed into a wooden box. I don't remember what I expected, as C.S. Lewis gave no exact description of the candy, but it was not these soft, gel-like cubes covered with nuts. I knew that Mehmet shared his Turkish Delight with no one, so I tried very hard to like it. I found it rather bland, and thought it stuck to my teeth horribly, but I wouldn't have offended him for the world. I made the appropriate appreciative noises, and wished for a nice cup of hot tea to help wash the stuff down my throat. I considered the Turkish coffee cooling in my little cup, but thought better of it.
Turkish Delight only recently resurfaced in my memory, when I learned that a friend I haven't seen for at least 20 years, is traveling in Turkey. I asked him to make a point of sampling Turkish Delight while he was there. He was more than willing, and even took a picture of it before he ate it (see left!). He says, "It's very sweet and similar to taffy. I loved it, and enjoyed the variety of ingredients." It's been so long since I tasted it myself, it was good to hear from someone with a fresher memory of it!
Apparently, the process of making Turkish Delight is a lengthy one, and from the comments I've read under many recipes online, it is fraught with potential for error. Many people complain that the sugar coating on the pieces becomes wet and weepy. Apparently, this is the reason the sugar is mixed with corn starch. The few recipes I could find originating in Turkey called for allowing the candy to age a couple of days before coating it in sugar.
If you are intrepid in nature, or experienced with candymaking, try one of these recipes. I've read that the versions that cheat by using any type of gelatin to achieve the firm texture are not authentic, and offer a very different flavor, so I have not included them here.
Perhaps enjoying Turkish Delight will become one of your holiday traditions, as you battle the sense that it will be "always winter and never Christmas" where you live, as well!
As the traditional recipe is flavored with rose water, here are instructions for brewing your own rose water from fresh rose petals from your garden:
Old-Fashioned Rose Water Recipe
Enamel Pot (any size)
- Fill the bottom of an enamel pot with the rose petals a few inches deep. Pour distilled water over the petals until they are just covered.
- Turn on heat for the water to be steaming hot, but do not boil. Let the water steam until the petals have lost their color, the water has taken on the color of the rose petals and you see rose oil skimming the surface. This will take approximately 60 minutes.
- Strain the water and squeeze out the liquid from the rose petals, this is your rosewater.
Here are several variations on the traditional recipe, beginning with one flavored with rose water. At the end, I've included suggestions for other flavorings.
4 cups sugar
4 1/2 cups water
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 tablespoons rosewater, or other flavoring
red food coloring (optional)
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup additional cornstarch for coating
Makes 80 pieces.
Total time: 2 hours.
1) Line a 9 inch square pan with plastic wrap or foil and oil well.
2) In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, 1 1/2 cups of the water, and the lemon juice. Stir until the sugar dissolves and the mixture boils. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, without stirring, until the mixture reaches 240 F on a candy thermometer (soft ball stage.) You may find it helpful to dip a pastry brush in water and wipe down the inside of the pan to prevent the splattered drops from hardening as the candy cooks. Remove the pan from the heat.
3) In a second, larger heavy saucepan, stir together 1 cup cornstarch and the cream of tartar. Gradually stir in the remaining 3 cups of water until no lumps remain. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture boils and is a thick, gluey paste. This happens very quickly; don't step away, and don't stop stirring!
4) Slowly pour the hot sugar, water, and lemon juice into the cornstarch mixture, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring often to prevent sticking, for about 1 hour, or until the mixture has become quite thick. It should be so thick that it drawing the stir spoon across the bottom of the pan leaves a trail that closes in slowly. You can test the texture of the product by dropping a blob into some cold water. It should be fairly solid and chewy, not runny.
5) Stir in the flavoring (either the rosewater, or other options; see below) and tint as desired with food coloring. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Cool to room temperature and let stand, uncovered, overnight to set.
6) Sift the confectioners sugar and the remaining 1/4 cup cornstarch onto a large cutting board. Turn the Turkish delight out and cut into 1-inch squares with an oiled knife. Roll pieces in the sugar mixture to coat well. Store in an airtight container with sheets of waxed paper, dusted with the sugar mixture, separating every layer.
If you have candymaking supplies on hand, you may have concentrated lemon oil or fruit flavorings already in your cupboard. If not, you will want to concentrate whatever you will be using to flavor your candies. For example, if you have frozen juice concentrate, you can boil it to further reduce it, to avoid thinning the candy.
(translated from the Turkish food magazine, Sofra, September 2004)
Ingredients for 12 people
1 kg of sugar (approximately 5 cups)
1 liter of water (4-1/4 cups) plus the juice of half of a lemon
150 mL (2/3 cup) corn starch
200 mL (a little less than 1 cup) grated coconut
About 100 mL (about ½ cup) of various nuts, dried apricots and dried figs (for decoration purposes)
1) Put sugar, starch, water and lemon juice in a big pot and stir. Bring to a boil while continuously stirring with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat when the mixture stops sticking to the sides of the pot.
2) Pour over wax paper and even out with a spatula. Put coconut on top and let cool. Cut into cubes and and decorate with the various toppings (nuts, fruits, etc. Pistachio is traditional).
For easier removal, you can wipe the wax paper with a damped towel, wait a minute and take the lokums off.
An internet search on the terms "recipe Turkish Delight" will yield even more variations, including versions with cream, chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, coconut, and even creme de menthe.
Enjoy, and may your holidays be delightfully tasty and deeply meaningful!
 C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, (Collier Books 1978 edition) pp. 31-33
Picture of Turkish Delight in Istanbul, Turkey, by Brent Pickering.
All other photos used in this article were found in Wikimedia Commons and in the Creative Commons area of Flickr.