Thursday, July 5, 2007

Turkish Delight: Rose as Aphrodisiac

Turkish delight—the name itself is equivalent to a flirtatious wink. Veiled in powdered sugar, its square shape is softened by a tender blush that opaquely radiates from its center. Once consumed, it leaves a trace of confectioner’s sugar on the lips and a perfumed echo of rose on the tongue. It’s a sublime treat that elevates floral flavor to regal status, but what else would one expect from a confection created to satisfy the wives and mistresses of Sultan Abdul Hamid I...

In 1776, the same year the American Declaration of Independence was signed, Anatolian candy maker Hadji Bekir opened a sweet shop in Constantinople. Shortly thereafter, Bekir introduced the world to rahat lokum and was appointed chief confectioner in the Ottoman court. The Sultan, who commissioned Bekir’s work, unleashed a passion that exceeded the boundaries of his ever evolving harem. In the 19th century an unnamed British traveler shipped cases of the confection to England and crowned the delicacy “Turkish delight.” It is a British favorite to this day and is used as a tool of enticement in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The aphrodisiac aspects of Turkish delight are evident when one attempts to bite into the treat, an approach that is futile if true satisfaction is sought. A far more enjoyable approach (which was likely intentional on the part of Bekir and the Sultan) is consumption of the soft, flesh-like cube whole. As the powdered sugar melts, the tongue teases the morsel, gently exploring the confection until it dissolves in a sweet lingering finish. To say that eating Turkish delight is similar to kissing is not an understatement as this skill in love is necessary in order to fully appreciate the flesh-like texture of this delicacy.

The base of Turkish delight consists of sugar, cornstarch and cream of tartar, a combination that is subject to drying and hardening if over cooked or stored under improper conditions. Hazer Baba, a popular brand of Turkish delight, is available in a variety of flavors (rose, lemon and mint, with and without nuts) and is dated for freshness. Yaranush, an Armenian grocery in White Plains, New York offers the best Turkish delight I have ever eaten (and wickedly good halwa as well). Sold in bulk, flavors include rose, orange blossom, mint, vanilla and sundry combinations with nuts. Yaranush does not ship by mail, but if you are fortunate enough to know someone who is willing to procure them for you, you will have no regrets.

It is possible to make your own Turkish delight, which is labor intensive, but worth the effort. For those of you who are willing to give it a shot, cookbook author Tess Mallos offers this recipe in The Complete Middle East Cookbook, published by Tuttle:

Cooking time: 1 1/2 hours. Yield: approximately 2 lbs.

  • 4 cups granulated sugar

  • 4 1/2 cups water

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

  • 1 cup cornstarch

  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1 tablespoon rose water (may be doubled, Cortas brand is best)

  • A few drops of red food coloring

  • 1/2 cup chopped, unblanched, toasted almonds (optional)

  • 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar

  • 1/4 cup cornstarch

Combine sugar, 1 1/2 cups water and lemon juice in a thick-based pan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves, brushing sugar crystals off side of pan with bristle brush dipped in cold water. Bring to the boil and boil to soft ball stage 240° F (115° C) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

In another thick-based pan blend cornstarch, cream of tartar and 1 cup cold water until smooth. Boil remaining 2 cups water and stir into cornstarch mixture, then place over low heat. Stir constantly until mixture thickens and bubbles. Use a balloon whisk if lumps form. Pour hot syrup gradually into cornstarch mixture, stirring constantly. Bring to the boil and boil gently for 1 1/4 hours. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon and cook until mixture is a pale golden color. Stirring is essential.

Stir in rose water to taste and a few drops of red food coloring to tinge it a pale pink. Blend in nuts if used, and remove from heat.

Pour into an oiled 9 inch (23 cm) square cake tin and leave for12 hours to set.

Combine confectioner’s sugar and the 1/4 cup cornstarch in a flat dish.

Cut Turkish delight into squares with an oiled knife and toss in sugar mixture. Store in a sealed container with remaining sugar mixture sprinkled between layers.


Crème de Menthe Lokum: Replace rose water and red food coloring with 2 tablespoons Crème de Menthe liqueur and a little green food coloring. Omit nuts.

Orange Lokum: Use 1-2 tablespoons orange flower water instead of rose water; use orange food coloring.

Vanilla Lokum: Use 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead of rose water and coloring, and stir in 1/2 cup toasted chopped almonds or chopped walnuts. Do not blanch almonds.

Note: The use of rose and orange blossom water has always been a part of Persian cuisine and the Romans, who used rose petals like confetti at their banquets, were no strangers to using the flower in food. Our modern noses have been overloaded by candles, air fresheners and artificially scented bath products so the idea of eating something that is ever so slightly perfumed can strike one as akin to eating soap or air deodorizer. It is all in the association—fragrant foods, though not for everyone, can be refreshing, sublime, and quite sexy. Though I have yet to taste novel flavors such as saffron, jasmine or bergamot in this confection, I am certain that adventurous creations will enter the repertoire of Turkish delight.


Hazer Baba Turkish delight may be purchased online from Kalustyan’s.

Yaranush (an article about the Armenian grocery store in New York which may result in car jaunts or flights into Westchester County Airport).

The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos.