Turkish delight's intriguingly sweet history
Pink, yellow or green, filled with nuts, coated with sugar - however you like it, sweet, sticky Turkish delight or lokum is known all around the world.
Turkish delight dates back at least 230 years, and the myths around the origins of Turkey’s quintessential sweetmeat are almost as sticky as the confection itself.
Abdul Hamid might not have been Turkey’s bravest leader - his ill-planned skirmishes with the Russians almost saw the fall of the Ottoman empire - but he did know a bit about women. As legend has it, the 27th sultan who lived three centuries ago had four wives, and a problem that few of us can identify with: how to keep four women, holed up together in a palace, happy.
Sultan Hamid gathered together the best confectioners in the Ottoman kingdom and charged them with a huge task: create a sweet treat that will keep my wives happy. One of the cooks - Haci Bekir - came up with a dish made with cornstarch, flavours and sugary syrup. He filled it with nuts and dried fruit, and won the gratitude of Sultan Hamid - and generations of sweet lovers - forever.
Recipe for success
Haci Bekir, who moved from the north to Istanbul in 1777 and opened a shop in the Bahcekapi district, which still exists today, run by Efendi’s descendants and bearing his name.
The confection was originally sweetened with honey and molasses, adding rosewater, lemon peel and bitter orange to create the traditional pink, yellow and orange flavours. Bekir improved added cornflour and beet sugar, firming up the sweet.
In the early 19th century Haci Bekir introduced glucose to the sweet, shortly after its discovery.
Word of Bekir’s sweet spread, and he was soon appointed as chief confectioner to the palace, and travelled the world, winning medals for his lokum.
Tim Richardson, who wrote Sweets: A History of Candy, isn’t convinced about the Bekir family’s claim on the sweet. Richardson believes lokum predates the Haci Bekir by many years and that the Bekir family have claimed historical ownership due to commercial interests.
"I'm sure it is a much older sweet. There is evidence of gummy, syrupy sweets dating back to the 9th century," he says.
Richardson is referring to the Persians, who developed a confection called “no rooz,” meaning new year, to eat at that time. This early version of lokum was made with sugar and cornstarch, and cut, like lokum, into cubes.
The neighbouring Greeks have also laid claim to lokum, with Cypriot lokum sellers calling the confection “Greek delight.”
A sweet by any other name
“Lokum” comes from the Arabic “luqmat”, the plural of which, “luqum”, means “morsel” and “mouthful”. An unknown Briton, who became fond of lokum while staying in Istanbul in the 19th century but couldn’t pronounce the name, took cases of it back to Britain and sold it under the name Turkish delight. The sweet was a huge hit in Britain and throughout continental Europe at the time, and was enjoyed by high class society, who used to exchange pieces of lokum wrapped in silk handkerchiefs.
Today’s Turkish delight
Not a lot has changed since Bekir made his improvements. The classic flavours are still rose, lemon, mint and mastic. The biggest seller, however, is a plain jelly lokum with pistachios. Another favourite is nuts rolled in Turkish delight and dusted with desiccated coconut.
Turkish delight is found all over the world, and has remained perennially popular. Winston Churchill loved it, and it was rumoured to be Napoleon’s favourite sweet. Picasso ate it to improve his concentration.
A rumour has it that jellybeans are inspired by Turkish delight, as they have a similar gummy centre.
Turkish delight in popular culture
In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens has temptress Rosa Bud perform an erotic striptease as she eats Turkish delight, licking the white powdery sugar from her finger.
In 2005 there was a spike in Turkish Delight sales with the release of the Narnia film The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In the film (an adaptation of CS Lewis’s bestselling book), Edmund is lured by the Snow Queen’s Turkish delight. In the book, Lewis wrote that Edmund "thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish delight as he could, and the more he ate, the more he wanted."
Want to make your own version of the famous sticky sweet? See our infographic, which explains the process from start to finish.