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February 28, 2009

Lokum-motive: Turkish Delight, halva, dondurma and wondrous Istanbul

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Of all the many ways to introduce newcomers to Istanbul, the drive into the city from Ataturk airport may well be the worst.

Short on beauty, at least the cab ride from the airport is a baptism by fire into one essential element of life in the metropolis on the Bosporus: traffic.

It's a half hour of cars swerving in and out of lanes, and aggressive drivers riding the horn and careening to their destinations with an urgency usually seen only in emergency workers.  We saw two accidents on that first taxi ride: one was a car flipped on its side on the median with the driver standing beside his wreck with his shirt dirtied and his pants ripped; minutes later, we watched two drivers arguing over their fender bender.

Then we got to experience the problem personally.  Just blocks from our hotel, our cab was lightly rear-ended by another cab.  No matter, our cabbie checked the damage using the passenger side mirror, muttered a few imprecations at the other driver under his breath, then zoomed on.

What compounds the terror is that not only does everyone drive like a maniac, but none of the backseats in the cabs have functioning seat belts.  The shoulder straps are there, but the buckles are buried under the backseats or are non-existent.

I survived the trip using a combination of white knuckles, closed eyes, and prayers to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Ganesha, and L. Ron Hubbard.

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Once safe and sound at our hotel, we gathered our wits, consulted our map, and hit the town -- on foot -- to sample a few of the local specialties.

Istiklal Caddesi is a glorious pedestrian boulevard in the heart of Istanbul's cosmopolitan Beyoglu neighbourhood.  On our first night, on the cusp of sundown in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, we entered Istiklal Caddesi off a tiny sidestreet and were immediately immersed into a hive of humanity that easily qualifies as the pedestrian equivalent of the automobile traffic we'd just escaped.

But whereas all those cars terrify, this street invigorates.  Between the buzz of the faithful lining up in front of restaurants to break their daily fast and the many restaurants and cafes, some Western, some Turk, eager to help them do it, it was hard for us to decide where to stop first.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that hard.

Ever since I read Harold McGee's article praising Turkish ice cream, I'd been craving a taste.  Dondurma, as it's known in Turkey, has a uniquely chewy texture, a quality it owes to two factors: first, it's made using powdered orchid bulbs, known as salep in Turkish (which translates to "fox testicle" in English); second, it's not so much churned as it is kneaded and stretched vigorously.

The two processes work hand-in-hand.  Salep contains glucomannan, a carbohydrate that, as McGee explains, "bind[s] up and block[s] the movement of water molecules."  Kneading the ice cream turns this "network into a dense elastic mass" so thick it can be pulled like taffy and sliced with a knife.

Several cafes along Istiklal Caddesi sell salep ice cream.  Some emphasize the more theatrical aspects of this dessert: they pull cylinders of dondurma out of their freezers using extended metal rods, then they stretch and pull it, showing off its amazing pliability.  The only thing I can compare it to is glass blowing, and the oozing fluidity of molten hot glass as it's being pulled from ferociously hot ovens and shaped by the glassmaker.

We stopped at a few places.  I'd read about Mado during some pre-trip research and then had it recommended again by Cenk, a native of Istanbul and the author of Cafe Fernando, a droolworthy food blog.  Some argue it is Istanbul's best ice cream maker, and they do serve a delightful dondurma with a mild taste and a slight chew.

At the cheaper stands on Istiklal Caddesi, teenage boys spin their ice creams this way and that, teasing the buyer by almost juggling them, before handing over cups of dondurma that are far chewier and less flavourful than the more refined product at Mado.  This version encapsulates Rachel's objection to dondurma: done poorly, it reminds her of the gummy gelatinous texture that is a hallmark of cheap industrial North American ice cream.

A little further down the street we stopped at Haci Bekir, Istanbul's most renowned candy shop, which is famous for its Turkish Delight and halva.  Unfortunately, I've never been a fan of Turkish Delight.  In Canada, the only exposure most of us get to "Turkish Delight," known as "lokum" in Turkey, is the vile Big Turk chocolate bar -- a sickly sweet ribbon of hyper-sweet, fruit flavoured jelly enrobed in cheap milk chocolate.  The real stuff, however, I now love.  The version at Haci Bekir is delicately sweet, and its most noticeable flavours are nuts and rose water or mastic. 

Halva, a slightly sweet, grainy, tahini-based dessert, was already one of my favourite childhood treats.  My father would purchase it occasionally, and I remember gorging on it without ever having any idea what it was.  We went for a brick of pistachio because it works so well in most sweets, and halva is no exception.  This halva distinguishes itself for its texture, which seemed both a little moister and much finer than the tinned product sold in most Toronto groceries.

Already stuffed to the gills on Turkish sweets on first night in the city, we were nonetheless lured into a little hole in the wall pastry shop by the constant stream of people lining up for a mystery food being scooped into bowls from a big baking dish and slathered with chocolate sauce.  Whatever it was, business was brisk.

Turns out that Inci does a brisk business in profiteroles.  Unfortunately, we have to give these treats a thumbs down.  The choux pastry was good but the filling was heavy and a little coarse and likely thickened with cornstarch.

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I returned to Mado every day of our trip, some days more than once, for a cup of dondurma.  To this day, the only Turkish I've really mastered is "Merhaba!  Salepi dondurma, lutfen."  I'm not sure that "Hello, salep ice cream, please," made me a great tourist in the eyes of Mado's staff, but it did make me a very happy eater.

Of course, it's easy to bring home a little lokum and halva, but ice cream travels poorly.  I was determined, however, to try making dondurma at home, so I purchased small amounts of salep and mastic for a small ransom at Istanbul's Spice Bazaar and decided to try my luck in my own kitchen.

Let's just say I'm still trying.  I have now created reasonable versions of dondurma at home.  Unfortunately, I lack the equipment to properly work the ice cream and it shows in the final product.  My version of dondurma has a far more pronounced mastic flavour than the versions we ate in Istanbul, but it is also far less chewy, the quality I love most.

Mastic is also a challenging ingredient to use.  It comes in jagged crystals and is actually the resin of a tree native to the Greek island of Chios.  Not only does it apparently contribute to the chewy texture of dondurma -- we saw mastic chewing gum for sale in Turkey --  it adds a sharply resinous, almost piney flavour to dishes, even when used in minute quantities.  I used less than one gram in my first batch of dondurma, and decided to scale it back ever so slightly for my second.

I've played with the amount of salep I use too, but I don't think I can approximate the texture of the real deal until I make dondurma in my stand mixer with liquid nitrogen, something I don't intend to do until summer.  I'm betting that the paddle attachment on my KitchenAid will provide the kneading muscle it takes to make this ice cream behave, and the liquid nitrogen will give me the temperatures I need to keep it chilled while doing so.

That said, if you happen to get your hands on some salep, a product unavailable outside of Turkey as far as I know, and a little mastic, which is available in most Turkish or Greek groceries, including Greek House Food Market in Toronto (where one of the owners told me many Greeks chew nuggets of mastic like gum), do try the recipe at the end of this post.

And if you can't get your hands on the ingredients, visit Istanbul.  For all my complaining about the terror of the ride into the city, all I remember about the cab back to the airport was sadness at saying goodbye to a beautiful city and its incredible food.

Dondurma -- Turkish ice cream

This recipe is still a work in progress.  Texturally, it's not quite there yet, though the flavours are excellent.  In order to improve its texture, I suggest making this ice cream with liquid nitrogen in a stand mixer so it can be kneaded thoroughly.

500ml 35% whipping cream
500ml 3.25% whole milk
0.8g mastic (a piece about the size of a fingernail)

12g salep (approximately 3 tsp)
200g granulated sugar (approximately 1C)

1. Freeze the mastic.  When frozen, grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder with 10 grams (approximately 2 tsp) of the granulated sugar.
2. Heat the remaining sugar, all of the cream, and 250ml of the whole milk over medium-low heat.  Sprinkle the sugar and mastic mixture and salep over the milk mixture, whisking vigorously.  Heat the mixture to 80C, whisking constantly.  Remove the mixture from the heat, and add the remaining milk.
3. Chill the mixture completely, preferably overnight.
4. Churn chilled mixture in ice cream maker as per maker's instructions.

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Comments

The Other Tiger

So *that's* what makes Turkish ice cream stretchy. I've only had it once, ten years ago in Istanbul, but I can still remember the texture. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

Kent

Yes, liquid nitrogen in a stand mixer works very nicely. My student Arielle has developed an effective and tasty recipe. Look for it soon at the website for the Experimental Cuisine Collective.
Keep in mind that salep is restricted for commercial export from Turkey, due to the concerns about over-harvesting of the orchids from which the salep flour is obtained. You may wish to discourage wide use of salep. Also, if you happen to see Arabic "sahlab" in the markets in North America, many of these are inferior products (not obtained from the orchid root) that will not yield the desirable texture.

Bob

I have developed my own Salep Ice Cream recipe using the drink mix, you can see it here

http://www.bob-stanton.com/Food/Blog/post/Toasted-Salep-Ice-Cream.aspx

jules

I was obsessed with salep when I was in Turkey but only the drink - loving the idea of the icecream. thanks for letting me know about it

Scott at Realepicurean

*Ahem*, Turkish Delight addict over here!

Ati Minchev

Nice account of Istanbul. Next time I recommend you visit The land mark Kanat restaurant at Uskudar ( short walk from the ferry docks ) to see and sample most of the traditional Turkish dishes, which are unfortunately disappearing from the other places as Istanbul becomes more and more " westernised"

Regards,

Ati Minchev
Toronto

bibliochef

I have only been to Istanbul once, and that was for about a week or so, where I also took some cooking classes. I stayed before that in Sirince, which was swell. I still say: there was not one bite of food that was not extraordinary in all of Turkey

tasteofbeirut

Thanks for this post! I am going to need it as I am going to Istambul in a week's time. By the way, where did you find salep? I am having a hard time finding it in the US.

Cuisinart Ice Cream Makers

I went to Turkey many years ago. One of the foods we were advised to avoid amongst the usual things like ice cubes, washed salad etc was their ice cream.

To be fair it wasn't the ingredients to be wary of, more the storage. Many times it isn't kept at a high (or is it low?) enough temperature so e coli was rife.

I might have a go at making the Turkish ice cream recipe here at home using my ice cream maker and see what the kids make of it :)

woman

Looks really good! Thanks for sharing.

Adam Gleason

Wow -- I've never tried Turkish ice cream but now that I see your recipe, I will definitely try to make it. I have some other homemade ice cream recipes, if anyone would like to check them out. I love making ice cream in the comfort of my own kitchen, with the rest of the family, kids and all, helping out!

girl

Wow... this is so yummy... I am really gonna try this!
Thanks for sharing some of the culinary delights.

chicago personal trainer

yummy and sounds great to taste and enjoy.Definitely try this one and thanks.

y8

great tips. i remember these fondly when gas was a dollar a gallon. i think that we probably shouldn’t fall back on these, but i think everyone will adopt a few of them
Thanx admin

miniclip

Wow... this is so yummy... I am really gonna try this!

friv

Wow -- I've never tried Turkish ice cream but now that I see your recipe, I will definitely try to make it. I have some other homemade ice cream recipes, if anyone would like to check them out. I love making ice cream in the comfort of my own kitchen, with the rest of the family, kids and all, helping out!

car accident attorney orlando

Your drive sounds like a car accident waiting to happen. It's great to hear that you had an otherwise happy vacation.

kizi

Nice account of Istanbul. Next time I recommend you visit The land mark Kanat restaurant at Uskudar ( short walk from the ferry docks ) to see and sample most of the traditional Turkish dishes, which are unfortunately disappearing from the other places as Istanbul becomes more and more " westernised"

angry birds rio

I was obsessed with salep when I was in Turkey but only the drink

y8 games

I have some other homemade ice cream recipes, if anyone would like to check them out. I love making ice cream in the comfort of my own kitchen ....

Chaussure de Foot

thank u for your sharing, if i have a chance to travel the Istanbul, i would like to have a try!thank u very much!

lunettes de soleil rayban

Incroyable! J'adore vos photos et ils ont effectivement ramené quelques souvenirs d'enfance étonnantes. Équitation, grimper aux arbres et la cueillette des amandes fraîches. Je peux presque sentir l'odeur de la maturité des fruits, quand je me concentre sur vos photos. Merci!

worldgame

I was obsessed with salep when I was in Turkey but only the drink

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