History of Turkish Delight

Every home in Turkey has a stash of these succulent, sugary cubes, which are offered with tea and coffee, and after breakfast, lunch and dinner. The trays of dusty pink, yellow and green lokum are as much a part of Istanbul life as the imam’s dawn call. Turkish delight must be the only sweet in the world that is so embedded in a country’s national identity. We do not think of Britain and mint humbugs or America and bubblegum, but we do think of Turkey and Turkish delight. Turkish delight was invented by Bekir Affendi, who came to Istanbul in 1777 from the eastern province of Anatolia. He opened his first Turkish Delight shop, in a narrow street close to the spice bazaar, which is still there to this day and is still owned by his descendants and run by the fifth generation of families he employed.

Bekir concocted the recipe for Turkish delight in 1777 as an improvement on an old mixture of honey or molasses, water, and flour. He used cornflour and the newly available refined beet sugar and developed the firm, chewy delicacy. Word spread and the Sultan appointed him chief confectioner to the palace.

He traveled the world, winning medals in Vienna, Cologne, Brussels and Paris for the quality of his confectionery. The medals and the Sultan’s certificate lines the offices. The next two generations were also appointed to serve the palace. Little has changed in 225 years. The classic flavours remain rose, lemon, mint, and mastic. But the Turks’ favourite – and the biggest seller – is a plain jelly studded with pistachios. Making Turkish delight is slow, first slurry is made of starch and water, and then sugar is added and the mixture cooked for two hours. It is poured into wooden trays dusted with starch and left to rest for two days before being cut into squares. Some people prefer their lokum “double-cooked”, where the solution is cooked for a full four hours to give it a caramel taste and firmer texture.

There is something bewitching about the original shop, with its marble floor, floral-painted ceiling and gleaming chrome and glass counter.  The original fireplace where Turkish delight was invented has been preserved and behind the brass counter stand four serious-looking Turks in white coats dishing out ladlefuls of dusty delights. On the wall is a copy of a portrait of a big-bellied, white-bearded Bekir, who became Haci after he completed the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. The original watercolour by the Maltese artist Amadeo Preziosi hangs in the Louvre in Paris and shows the old man weighing the lokum for two small children and their mother.

The Seker Bayram (sugar festival) marking the end of Ramadan is Haci Bekir’s peak season, when the company’s four small shops can expect to sell 10 tons in a day. During the religious festivals, the tradition is for the hostess to offer lokum to her guests as soon as they arrive. She passes a dainty glass dish, saying: “Let’s eat sweet. Let’s talk sweet.”

Bekir’s great-great-granddaughter, Hande Celalyan, is the deputy director working alongside her father, Dogan Sahin. Celalyan works on the fifth floor of the branch in Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrianised street in the heart of modern Istanbul. Above her desk is a portrait of her mother, the heir to the business, who died in her forties.

Even today the production of Turkish Delight is a boutique art. Every batch of Turkish delight is cooked with a person watching and deciding when it is ready.

You can appreciate the tradition and dedication to this Turkish Delicacy, every time you bite into one of our Turkish Delights.
The Turkish name for the sweet comes from the Arabic rahat-ul hulkum, which means “soothe or heal the throat”. This was abbreviated to rahat lokum and then lokum. The name “Turkish delight” evolved in the 18th century when an English traveller took home some of Bekir’s produce to his relatives. He could not pronounce the Arabic name and so coined Turkish delight. It stuck like syrup.