Sweet stories and sticky histories

Sweet stories and sticky histories

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Sweet stories and sticky histories Istanbul has been has the hub of three imperial haute cuisines, making use of not only lo-cal but imported foodstuffs ranging from caviar from the north coast of the Black Sea to spices from India. But one special import ingredient has defined its royal cuisine right from the start. Here Mary Işın explains:

“Sugar of various types from Egypt, Damascus, Cyprus and Rhodes, sugar candy and comfits ‘of every kind’ were traded here in the early 14th century during the Byzantine pe-riod. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453, sugar was consumed in ever greater quantities and in the 16th century the Turkish scholar Mustafa Ali of Gallipoli lik-ened the sugar of Egypt to ‘a sea flowing ultimately to Istanbul.’ The medieval Arab legacy of sweetmeats and sweet pastries was inherited and further developed by Turkish cuisine, a process which centered on the palace and elite ruling class in Istanbul.” 

This paragraph is just a small taste from the Istanbul entry of a colossal book on every-thing sweet in the world. The newly published “The Oxford Companion to Sugar & Sweets” is a monumental book, the most comprehensive reference work on sweet foods ever pub-lished. It has about 600 entries from 265 contributors from food historians to chemists, res-taurateurs to cookbook writers, neuroscientists to pastry chefs. Proud to be one of the many contributors, I have to admit that my share on the entries about Turkey is quite lim-ited. The credit on Turkey goes to Işın, author of  “Sherbet & Spice: The Complete Story of Sweets and Desserts,” who wrote entries on Turkey, Istanbul, baklava, lokum (Turkish de-light), tavuk göğsü (chicken breast pudding), yufka (filo) and spoon desserts. Residing in Turkey for decades, she remains one of the most curious food researchers I have ever met. Another credit on sweets related to Turkey goes to Charles Perry, who contributed on vast topics like Middle East and Persia. 

Bitterness in sweetness

The range of topics covered is immense; it takes readers around the globe with entries on countries, and in some cases, cities like Istanbul, and also offer a voyage throughout time going deep into the history of sugar and anything sweet. The stories related to history are most often not very sweet, but on the contrary very bitter indeed as put in the foreword by legendary anthropologist Sidney Mintz, the author of “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.” He recalls not only his first ever tasting of candy in around 1930 as his own “saccharose epiphany,” but also his first ever visit to a sugar cane plantation in the spring of 1948 during fieldwork in Puerto Rico. He remembers the soil “clayey, black in color… looked cool under the blinding sun, but the air in the field was intensely hot.” Work-ing in those fields was no easy task. Slave trade and slavery has been embedded in the pro-duction sugar in the new world. Mintz states that he sees the sugar’s sweet thread as red in color – the color of blood. 

The trade of sugar had definitely created an umbilical cord between the ports of Alexan-dria and Istanbul in the past as Işın reminds us of “the sugar of Egypt as a sea flowing ulti-mately to Istanbul.” To find about this and many other stories related to sweetness, as well as the bitter history about the sticky business of sugar trade, the Oxford companion is a must read. Thanks go to the insane work of Editor-in-Chief Darra Goldstein, Associate Edi-tor Michael Krondl, and area editors Ursula Heinzelmann, Laura Mason, Jeri Quinzo and Eric C. Rath. My special thanks goes to Max Sinsheimer, who oversaw the project with toil similar to that of sugar slaves, especially when dealing with me. One sweet memory was, without knowing him in person, when I wrote an apology note to him about the delay in submitting my entry without being aware of the fact that he was just sitting next to me. That was a year ago at Oxford; now after a year we’ll meet all again, volunteer slaves of the sweetest companion ever, to enjoy the sweet company of each other and to celebrate sweetness!

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: One sweet delight from the Ottoman past is a cross between halvah, a syrupy dessert and a cookie. Also known as a specialty of Kayseri, now thanks to Sahi, we can taste it in the heart of Istanbul. It is also quite easy to make, not requiring high culinary skills, unlike many intricate Ottoman sweets. 

First prepare the syrup with 2 cups of water, 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of grape molasses. Bring all ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, turn off the heat and let it cool completely. For the dough, mix with a blender 250 g of softened butter with 5 cups of flour + 1 heaped tsp of baking powder, 1 cup of tahini paste and 1 cup of yogurt. When the dough is thoroughly blended, add and incorporate 1 cup of coarsely chopped walnuts. It has to be like a cookie paste. Spread and press the dough in a buttered deep baking tray (25 cm X 35 cm) about an inch thick. Cut into fingers or lozenge shapes. Bake at 180ºC for about 30-35 minutes or until golden. When slightly cooled but still warm, pour the molasses syrup over the concoc-tion. Let cool completely until all the syrup is completely absorbed. Transfer to a serving plate, and decorate with more walnuts or a drizzle of tahini if desired. 

Sweet of the Week: Sahi in Karaköy offers a selection of carefully chosen sweet delights from all over Turkey, as well as house-made delicacies such as “nevzine,” the recipe above. Their hand-made chocolate wafers, simply called “gofret,” will bring you the authentic taste of your childhood. You can even experiment in combining tastes and create your own rolled Turkish delight on the premises. The terrace is the best kept secret in Istanbul to have a cup of Turkish coffee, or a glass of tea in typically tulip shaped tea-glasses, in an un-matched atmosphere overlooking the beautiful Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque.

Books of the Week: In my childhood we used to call Ramadan holiday “Şeker Bayramı,” the candy or sugar holiday. The sweetest gift in the forthcoming holiday will be these two books: Order now to be sure to get them on time. 

“The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets” (Oxford University Press)  

“Sherbet & Spice: The Complete Story of Sweets and Desserts” (I. B. Tauris).