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Stirring Sugar –The Invention of Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

Lokum or Turkish Delight are small jewel-like segments of jelly, traditionally flavoured with rosewater, mastic, Bergamot, orange, or lemon juice and dusted with icing sugar. Istanbul confectioner Bekir Affendi is credited with inventing lokum in 1777. Fifth generation Affendi’s still run Bekir’s original shop, Haci Bekir, in a narrow street close to the spice bazaar in central Istanbul. According to the family, and the legacy surrounding the sweets, Bekir concocted the jellies in an effort to improve upon an old mixture of honey or molasses, water and flour used to treat sore throats. He used cornflour and the newly available refined beet sugar to develop the firm, chewy lokum jelly. The name lokum comes from the Arabic “Halkum” or “Al-Halkum” meaning “throat comfort” or “to sooth or comfort the throat.”

Made of three simple ingredients – sugar, cornflour and water, traditional recipes center upon slowly thickening the mixture over heat, consistently stirring the sugar to avoid crystalisation. In Mary Isin’s Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts (2013) she quotes the writing of Pretextat-Lecomte, a Frenchman who observed the process of making lokum in the late 19th century,1

The manufacturer of lokum starts by dissolving starch in cold water; this starch is then placed in a great basin with a certain quantity of sugar, the basin is put on a gentle fire and for approximately two hours two men take turns in working the mixture with a large beater (a kind of spade made of wood). The sugar must be beaten in the same direction and without interruption, otherwise the paste will separate, and not become uniformly thick; and the timing of the beating movement must be constant, its regularity being the only cause of differences occurring in the quality of the paste.

The secret of authentic lokum lies in the skill of stirring the mixture. After the stirring process the mixture is poured into wooden trays, dusted with starch and left to rest for two days before being cut into neat squares. Modern recipes speed up the cooking process by adding gelatin yet, as Claudia Roden’s recipe from A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, (2000) instructs, cooking the sugary mixture for three hours with regular and consistent stirring is necessay to achieve the required texture.2 For Pretextat-Lecomte the technique of stirring demanded exceptional skill,3

It should not be thought that this is a minor matter, which is why never, in Europe, has anyone succeeded in imitating locoum.

Lokum was first introduced to Western Europe in the 19th century. An unknown Briton is said to have become incredibly fond of the delicacy during his travels to Istanbul, purchasing cases of it to be shipped back to Britain under the name Turkish Delight. It became a delicacy for the upper classes with socialites exchanging pieces or ‘lumps’ of Turkish Delight wrapped in silk handkerchiefs as presents. In Charles Dicken’s 1870 novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Edwin takes his fiancée Rosa to a “Lumps of Delight” shop.4 The exclusivity of the eastern delights faded somewhat in the following century when, in 1914, the confectioners Fry’s launched the Turkish Delight chocolate bar for a mass market. Fry’s reduced the delicacy of lokum into a firm rose flavoured jelly covered in milk chocolate. It’s hard to imagine a delicate stirring of sugar was undertaken in the production of the neat rectangular bar. However, the allure of the sweet remained with lokum appearing in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Dorothy L. Sayers novel Strong Poison (1930) and C.S Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). Sales of lokum reached an all time high following the theatrical release of the film version of Lewis’ fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005, showing that, despite the mass market adaptation of the flavoured jellies, the delicacy of traditional lokum or Turkish Delight has an enduring appeal.

To make Lokum or Turkish Delight

You will need,

  • 55g cornflour
  • 450g sugar
  • 375ml water
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp rosewater
  • Icing sugar

Lay a piece of muslin in a 20cm square tin and dust it with cornflour.

Boil the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan, stirring constantly.

Mix the rosewater and cornflour in a separate bowl, then slowly add to the saucepan, stirring over a medium heat for two hours. (If you prefer a firmer texture, stir the mixture for four hours to result in a thick caramel flavoured jelly).

When the mixture thickens to jelly, pour it into the tin and let it cool. If you would like to add nuts, mix them into the jelly once you've removed the lokum from the heat.

Turn the cooled mixture out of the tin onto a surface dusted with icing sugar.

Cut into squares and cover generously with the icing sugar.

The lokum is ready to serve at room temperature.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Pretextat-Lecomte, Les Arts et Metiers de la Turquie de l’Orient, Paris 1902 trans. in Mary Isin, Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts, London and New York: I.B Taurus, 2013. p.162.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Claudia Roden, A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2000, p.147.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Darra Goldstein ed. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 e-book.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Charles Dickens, The Complete Works of Charles Dickens: Edwin Drood and Miscellaneous. New York: Cosimo, 2009, p.23.

Laura Mansfield

Laura Mansfield is an independent curator and writer. She works closely with other artists in the development of both publication and exhibition based projects. She is an editor of FEAST.