Turkish Sweet History

Photo by Jenny White

Photo by Jenny White

A new book on the history of Turkish/Ottoman sweets, Sherbet and Spice by Mary Işin, was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement (here). An excerpt:

Starch was not regarded as a cooking ingredient in eighteenth-century Europe and was primarily used to powder wigs. In Ottoman Turkey, pulled sugar sticks (similar to Edinburgh rock) were particularly favoured by opium eaters who craved sugar almost as much as the drug. Manna is not just a miraculous food which descends from heaven, but is more normally found in the form of a sugar syrup, produced by various insects that suck sap from trees. A shop specializing in Turkish delight features in Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Sherbet and Spice is full of stuff which you do not need to know, though you are pleased when you do. Mary Işin’s book is based on wide and deep reading and its sources include such diverse figures as the eleventh-century Turkish lexicographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, the thirteenth-century mystic and poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad al-Rumi, the sixteenth-century physician and astrologer Nostradamus, the confectioner royal to Otto I of Greece Friedrich Unger and the humorist and Orientalist painter Edward Lear.

Quite a few of Işin’s sources are pharmaceutical ones, since many sweets and some desserts originally featured as medicines. For example, according to her, çevirme, or fondant, was first sold in medieval Turkey as an electuary and from there spread to Europe (though Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, only traced fondant’s origin to nineteenth-century France). Musk lozenges started as a cough cure and macun, or soft toffee, used to be vaguely thought of by the Turks as an all-purpose medicament…

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