The story of the creation of Turkish Delight (lokum) begins in the late 1700s, when Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, confectioner to the imperial court in Istanbul, listens to the sultan rant:
“Hard candy! I’m tired of hard candy!” the sultan growled as he cracked a tooth on yet another sourball. “I demand soft candy!”
His mountain-man blood rose! His face turned grim with conviction! He set his jaw with determination! He was going to take bold and decisive action!
He marched into his confectioner’s kitchen and thought up a recipe: he mixed water, sugar, corn starch, cream of tartar and rosewater, cooked it up, poured the mixture into a flat pan slicked with almond oil, and let it cool. Then he sprinkled it with powdered sugar, cut it into bite-sized chunks and…his hand trembling, his eyes bright with anticipation, his mind fraught with trepidation, his lips quivering to receive the morsel…he bit!
What? No crack of candy crunched by his mighty alpine jaws? No shower of sugary splinters scattering through his oral cavity? Why, this new confection was soft and easy to chew, a pleasure, a treat for both palate and teeth! It was… it was…a comfortable morsel!
Rahat lokum (“comfortable morsel”), nowadays called simply lokum, or Turkish Delight, was an instant hit, especially at the palace. Ali Muhiddin became a celebrity overnight as palace bigwhigs (or, more usually, their lackeys and gofers) traipsed down the hill from Topkapı Palace to Eminönü on the Golden Horn to buy boxes of Comfortable Morsels to thrill the jaded palates of Ottoman potentates.
You can still buy lokum at Ali Muhiddin’s shop in Eminönü today, almost 250 years since the intrepid confectioner saved his sultan from sourballs. It’s on Hamidiye Caddesi at the corner of Seyhülislam Hayri Efendi Caddesi, two blocks east of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) (map).
Over the centuries Ali Muhiddin’s descendants (the shop is still owned by the family) fiddled with the recipe, adding good things like walnuts, pistachios, oranges, almonds, clotted cream, and of course chocolate. (The plain rosewater original is still a favorite, however.)
Lokum (Turkish Delight) is now made and sold in thousands of shops throughout Turkey, and enjoyed with Turkish tea or coffee, or just by itself. A favorite place to buy it is Afyon, where the rich local clotted cream is used to make kaymaklı lokum.
When you visit a shop, don’t be afraid to ask for a free sample: say Deneyelim! (deh-neh-yeh-LEEM, “Let’s try some!”) (For more Turkish words and phrases, see my Turkish Language Guide.)