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Turkey’s Traditional Confectons
Until the discovery of sugar, people satisfied their need for sweets by eating honey as well as fresh and dried fruits and the syrups made from them.
According to legend, when the Persian emperor Darius, who lived in the pre-Christian era, first saw sugar being produced on his conquest of India, he called this sweet liquid obtained from sugar cane ‘bee-less honey’. A carefully kept secret, the production of sugar brought its producers big money. According to historians, sugar was initially introduced to the Europeans, who at first dubbed it ‘white salt’. Sugar, whose production from sugar cane was a laborious and costly process, was an exotic and tasty yet pricey sweet that was only consumed by wealthy Europeans as a nutrient with medicinal qualities. Loaf sugar in those times was shaved off and sold by the gram like other medicaments. In the period up to the industrial age, sugar remained an expensive substance always hard to come by.
The Confectioner's Art Goes West
But the Middle Eastern confectioner’s art gradually spread to the West, in the process far surpassing its contemporary counterparts during the period of Ottoman splendor. The production of hard or rock candy was known in both the East and the Near East prior to the Ottomans. But the Ottomans invented such a fine product that it was as momentous as the discovery of sugar itself. This marvel was known as rahat ül-hulkum (contentment of the throat). Later the Ottomans created the miracle called lâti lokum and, eventually, just lokum, aka Turkish delight.
In terms of its overall composition, lokum can be defined as a more advanced form of the fruit pastes that are made from pekmez (Turkish grape molasses). Alternatively, it could also be characterized as having been inspired by halvah (sesame paste). Despite a plethora of views about when lokum was first produced, no conclusive date has been ascertained so far. But high quality sugar and starch are known to have been widespread in the Ottoman lands by the 18th century. Any lokum produced prior to that date probably varied widely in quality. Although the making of lokum with its basic ingredients of water, sugar and starch may appear simple, no one apart from the Ottomans was successful in producing it. The leading western confectioners of the period proved unable to produce European lokum despite collaboration with Turkish confectioners in the Ottoman period, which did not prevent Europe from becoming the biggest market for Ottoman lokum. Unable to produce it themselves, the Europeans nevertheless did one very important thing, namely, they marketed the sweet under the name Turkish delight.
Originally known as ağda (burnt sugar or caramel) candy in Turkish, this remains one of the most popular products of Turkish confectionery even today. Called ağda or akide, both of which derive from the same root, in common parlance it means ‘used for two mutual purposes’ and harks back to the days of the Janissaries when it was offered following the ceremony that accompanied the quarterly distribution of pay. Known today as akide şekeri, its earlier Ottoman names, like ‘musk of the mouth’ and ‘macun’ (paste) are fading slowly into oblivion.
But whether in the form of Turkish delight, rock candy or some other form of confection, candy was distributed in previously designated amounts to state offices in the Ottoman period according to a strict protocol.