Just like many other societies, dessert accompanies different periods of life in Turkish cuisine. The expression, “let us eat dessert and speak of the good things” shows the importance of dessert in Turkish cuisine. “The sweetness of mouth” expression means to be healthy and to be happy.
Nihal Kadıoğlu Çevik is Foundation KAV Culinary Research Program Coordinator, Turkey.
Turkey is a country with different geographical and climate properties, rich flora and fauna diversity and various civilizations throughout history. All these properties have laid the ground for rich food culture in the country. Just like many other societies, dessert accompanies different periods of life in Turkish cuisine. Our desserts such as baklava and lokum have exceeded the country’s borders and these desserts are acknowledged globally. The expression, “let us eat dessert and speak of the good things” shows the importance of dessert in Turkish cuisine. “The sweetness of mouth” expression means to be healthy and to be happy.
In this article, I will try to talk about some of the less-known examples of the desserts in Turkish cuisine with their cultural contexts. But firstly I would like to shortly note the position of our dessert in our food tradition.
In some of the ongoing traditional practices, water with sugar is dropped inside the mouth of a newborn. This practice symbolises starting life with “the sweetness of mouth”. Again, in other traditional practices, the mother who gave birth to her child eats a lot of sweet to regain her health or to produce lots of milk. The first food given to the women who gave birth in the rural area is a sweet prepared by mixing molasse and melted butter. The engagement ceremonies in most of the regions in Turkey are defined as “we have eaten the dessert, we have drunk sherbet”. The desserts rituals are always there in engagement ceremonies, wedding ceremonies and celebrations. Before the holy Ramadan, the desserts to be eaten and offered throughout this month are prepared. The main honouring of the religious celebrations are desserts. After the day of someone’s death, halva is cooked in the funeral home and the home of the deceased person and the same dessert is cooked on the 7th and 40th day.
The dessert types in Turkish cuisine are generally classified as dough desserts with sherbet which include baklava as well, halva, fruit desserts and milk puddings. There are some other relatively unknown desserts other than these options and I am going to share a few examples at the end of my article. Let’s see some of the local desserts in Turkey and their geographical distributions.
Desserts with Sherbet Desserts with sherbet have a special place in Turkey. Baklava, which is included in this group, is the most prepared dessert and it is the symbol of special days and celebrations. In general, baklava is prepared with quality flour, egg, water and butter. The dough is rolled out very thinly by splashing starch between the layers. Walnut is spread between the phyllo dough layers laid on the tray on top of each other. In the Black Sea region which is the North region of our country, hazelnut is preferred instead of walnut. In our Southeast city of Gaziantep which is famous for baklava, the inner filling is pistachio. The baklava is cooked by spreading melted butter. It is then set aside and the sherbet prepared with sugar and water is poured on the prepared dough. There are numerous other desserts prepared with similar techniques but different forms. Let’s continue with few examples from desserts with sherbet other than baklava prepared in different regions.
Kaymaklı: Balıkesir city located in the Marmara region and has a coastline to Marmara and Aegean Seas is famous for buffalo breeding. The taste of this dessert called “kaymaklı” or “dough with cream” in this region comes from buffalo cream. For this dessert, 4-5 phyllo doughs kneaded with butter and milk are placed in two separate trays. The tray is rotated and the dough is cooked. Oak is preferred for the fire. A generous amount of cream is put inside the first tray and the dough on the other tray is placed on the cream by keeping the crispy part of the dough on the top. Warm sherbet with high consistency is poured on the dough for a soft texture and the dessert is set aside to rest.
Karakuş Dessert: The name of this dessert which is common in the Mediterranean region and especially in Adana and Mersin cities come from a regional bird. For “Karakuş Dessert”, a dough with milk, yoghurt and egg is kneaded for preparing phyllo. Walnut is added between the phyllo dough. The dough is shaped in a special form and fried in vegetable oil. Then, the dough is kept in the cold sherbet for a while.
Laz böreği: “Laz böreği” which is mostly prepared in Artvin and Rize in the East Black Sea region is a dessert which sherbet despite being called “börek”. Some of the thinly rolled phyllo dough is put on a baking tray. A pudding with egg is spread on the dough and black pepper is sprinkled. The remaining dough is put on the pudding. Melted butter is poured on the dough and the sherbet is added after the dough is cooked. A similar dessert called “gülvarak” is cooked in Afyonkarahisar city in Inner Aegean Region.
Ramadan Halva: Although it is called halva, “Ramadan Halva” has a special place in the Aegean region metropolis İzmir-Bergama among Ramadan food. To prepare this dessert, starch, flour, water, yeast and oil is necessary for the dough. The leavened dough is put inside a special copper pot with a small hole under the bottom. Wheel doing that, the individuals need to keep the hole at the bottom close with her finger. The dough is poured from this hole inside frying oil to create its unique spiral shape and both the top and the bottom of the dough are cooked. One side of the desserts is coloured with an alkanet paste (Alkanna tinctoria: a plant which the roots are used for obtaining a red dye) and a special brush. The reddish-pink and white dough are put inside hot sherbet by using special shish.
Milk Puddings: Milk puddings which form the other aspect of our dessert culture are practical and have a light taste. To achieve consistency in milk puddings such as rice pudding, pudding, keşkül (almond pudding) and chicken breast pudding rice, flour, rice flour or starch can be used. When the rice is used, it is specially processed to achieve "sübye". These desserts are often served with cinnamon. In some regions, geranium leaves are added inside the milk pudding to give a pleasant odour.
Keşkül: This is a delicious milk pudding prepared from milk, crushed almond, coconut and wetted rice. The dessert is served with almond, coconut and pistachio.
Chicken breast: The main ingredient of this dessert is chicken breast and it is known to have a light taste and unique texture when it is cooked with the right style. The main ingredients of this common dessert in Istanbul are chicken breast, rice and milk. The most important detail in preparation is that the cooked chicken breast is separated into thin slices and cooked until it is invisible in the dessert. Chicken breast pudding can be served with cinnamon or ice cream.
Fruit Desserts: The grapes produced in Turkey as one of the most important grape producers around the world are processed to create molasse which meets the more traditional dessert requirements. In addition to factory-produced molasse, the traditional production continues mostly in the rural areas. Molasse is prepared by boiling fruit with high sugar content such as grape, mulberry and apple.
The grapes collected from the vineyard are processed with apparatus called “şırahane” and “şırvana”. First, the grape inside sacks that filled in large sinks made out of wood or concrete is crushed out to obtain the juice. This juice is boiled on the furnaces prepared outside for this task on the wood fire until the desired taste and consistency is achieved. Sometimes, a special soil called “molasse soil” is added to balance the acid rate of this juice. In some regions, basil leaves are put inside the molasse pot before taking it from the fire for a short time to give it a pleasant taste. There are numerous foods prepared from grape juice or molasse and which are called sweet appetizers.
The molasse is cooked with starch or flour to prepare a dessert called “paluze”. This dessert is served with rose water, walnut or almond. Molasse can turn into a local dessert known as “Asuta, aside”. In general, butter, flour and molasse are used for preparing this dessert. Melted butter is poured on it for serving. More traditional people prefer to give this dessert to the women who gave birth to increase milk production.
Molasse is sometimes consumed on its own and sometimes transformed into a different dessert with other additions. It can be a delicious dessert just by mixing with yoghurt or tahini.
I would like to talk about desserts that directly use the fruit instead of using molasse as a product of the grape culture and give some examples of these desserts. For “incir uyutması” (stuffed fig dessert) which is one of these desserts, the dried figs are filled with large walnut pieces, placed inside a pot, hot milk is added and the stuffed figs are kept inside the pot for a few hours. In this waiting process called “uyutma”, the milk turns into a yoghurt consistency. The result is a healthy and delicious dessert.
“Stuffed fig” is a light dessert loved and prepared in various regions of our country. To prepare this dessert, the dried figs are filled with walnut and sesame roasted in butter; sherbet is poured on the stuffed figs and the figs are baked. This dessert can be prepared for other fruits such as apple, pear, plum and quince. These types of desserts are cooked with sugar and spices such as cinnamon, clove and cardamom and often filled with walnut, pistachio, almond or cream to have an attractive look.
For “apricot dessert with cream” which is popular in Malatya famous for apricot farming and located in the East region of our country, dried apricots are boiled inside a sherbet until they are soft and then cooled down. The apricots are filled with cream and apricot seed without the shell. Pistachio is spread over it.
In addition to fruits, different desserts are prepared with pumpkin which is included in the vegetable group. “Pumpkin dessert” is prepared from pumpkin. The sliced pumpkins are cooked with sugar and a cinnamon stick can be added during cooking. After cooling the dessert, it is served with crushed walnut.
When “pumpkin dessert” is traditionally prepared in Hatay which is known for its rich cuisine in the Mediterranean region, the large and thick pumpkin slices are cut in star or stick shape. The pumpkin is left on quicklime one night before preparing the dessert. This process makes the inner parts of the pumpkin soft while making the outer part crispy. The pumpkin is washed a couple of times. A few drops of lemon are added while cooking to achieve the desired colour and consistency. A thick sherbet is prepared and the pumpkins are put inside this sherbet for 1-2 days. Geranium leaves are added for a more sophisticated flavour.
In Sakarya city which has the most fertile land in the West Black Sea region, a dessert called “pumpkin with rice” is prepared. Small and sliced pumpkins are cooked by adding a layer of rice and a layer of blackcurrant and served in small cups.
Halva: Halva is highlighted as a dessert for special days in addition to its importance in daily lives and it has a mystic meaning. Cooking and giving away halva and especially flour halva after a deceased person is still a common tradition. The roasting time is extremely important for halva which is prepared by roasting flour, starch or semolina in butter because the taste, consistency and colour of halva entirely depend on this roasting process. When roasting halva, it is possible to add ingredients such as walnut, almond and pistachio. Sherbet prepared before the roasting process is added to the mixture and halva is set aside. Halva can also be cooked with milk.
Cheese halva has a special place among other halva types prepared with semolina, starch and cornflour. In Cheese Halva, the flour and butter are roasted. The taste and consistency are set by adding sugar and water. It is mixed with unsalted cheese and set aside to rest.
Höşmerim: This dessert is known with different names in different regions of Turkey and ewe milk is preferred for this dessert. It is cooked with milk, unsalted cheese, semolina, sugar and egg. Copper pots are used for more delicious höşmerim.
Other Desserts: “Aşure” has a special place among desserts other than desserts with sherbet, milk puddings and desserts with fruit. Aşure which is cooked across Turkey is a dessert with mystical symbols. It is believed that aşure is prepared by combining what is left after the Flood of Noah. It is mostly cooked during Moharram month which is considered holy by the Muslims. It is distributed to neighbours, families and friends.
Aşure which is a nourishing and delicious dessert can have slight differences in different regions but it is generally prepared as follows: It is cooked in a large pot with grains such as wheat without shell, white beans, chickpea, cowpea, rice (some are used after boiling), dried grape, dried fruits, sugar or molasse. It is served with sesame, nut, peanut, almond or walnut.
“Uhut” is another dessert with wheat as its key ingredient. This dessert is almost forgotten and it is still traditionally prepared in the West Black sea region. To prepare Uhut, the cleaned wheat is filled into special sinks with holes on the bottom and kept in a slightly dark area after wetting the wheat. The wheat slightly germinates in a moist environment. The wheat is spread on a cloth to separate it. The wheat is again put inside the sinks and controlled germination is applied for about 15 days. At the end of this period, the roots and sprouts of the wheat grains grow about 5 cm. The sprouts and roots are crushed with a knob or stone and put inside the water. This water is thickened by adding flour and water.
I would like to give an interesting dessert called “lamb neck dessert” or “sweetmeat” which is prepared in a limited area in İzmir located in the Aegean Region as the last example. For this dessert, the lamb neck is washed, kept inside the water and boiled after waiting as long as the blood drains. The broth is cooked by adding water, milk, dried apricot, dried plum and dried grape. It is served hot with crushed gum mastic as well as with a dash of cinnamon and roasted pine nut.
In this article, I tried to talk about some of the local desserts I carefully selected from different regions of Turkey within the cultural context. Just like all other aspects of the food culture, I care about researching, documenting and sharing the know-how about the traditional cooking techniques for dessert and the local products used in these desserts. I believe that the know-how presented by such research will inspire especially young cooks.
Personal communication with R. Aloğlu (Traditional Cook, age 62), İstanbul, Oct. 2012
Personal communication with M. Demir (age 65), Balıkesir, May 2014
Personal communication with Ş.Kublay (Traditional Cook, age 61), İzmir, July 2016
Personal communication with Fevziye K. (Traditional Cook, age 50), İzmir, May 2017
Personal communication with A. Sarı (age 54), Adana, March 2018
Pers. communication with L.Özcezar (Traditional Cook, age 64), Kastamonu, May 2018
Copyright images: Istanbul Photograph Doğanay Çevik, Cultural Research Foundation Archive, The rest of the photographs, Cultural Research Foundation Archive, kultur.org.tr/en