An old Turkish saying advises one to “eat sweetly and speak sweetly”. Sweets and desserts have always been an important and distinctive element of Turkish cuisine. That was true in Ottoman times and is just as true today & our desserts are the ultimate showcase of Turkish cuisine with a wide range of desserts from delectable puddings to sophisticated phyllo dough.
Sweet, sweet baklava
Turkish food would not be complete without the king of them all, which is baklava. Made from a simple combination of crispy filo pastry, chopped nuts and soaked in a sweet, sticky syrup, baklava is ideal as either a dessert or sweet snack. Sometimes served with a healthy dose of ice cream, the variety of nuts used differs from region to region. Gaziantep, a South-eastern province is famous for their use of pistachio nuts and production of what many say is the best Turkish baklava in the country.
In certain heavily trafficked areas, like Sultanahmet and Istiklal Avenue, vendors donning a red and gold fez and vest can be seen ringing a bell and calling out to passersby. They’re peddling more than just the stretchy ice cream known as salep dondurma—each transaction turns into a slapstick routine with the customer, as they repeatedly trick and taunt you with the cone: grabbing it back out of your hand, flipping it upside down, tossing it in the air, making you lick it for an audience, and more. (And, somehow, their schtick never gets old!) That said, it’s not just the stuff of street vendors; dondurma is sold in familiar ice cream parlor setups, as well.
The stretchy Turkish ice cream is sweetened and flavored with aromatic mastic (derived from an evergreen in the pistachio family) and thickened with salep (a powder made from wild orchid tubers). The addition of salep results in a distinct elasticity, allowing the ice cream to droop off the side of the cone without melting and dripping.
This sweet and savory Levantine cheese pastry is hard to avoid in Turkey; you can smell the street vendors frying it up from blocks away. Kunefe is made from a stretchy, unsalted fresh melting cheese called hatay found only in this region—mozzarella would be the closest Western analogue. The cheese is coated in sugar syrup-soaked phyllo shreds called kadayıf (the same ones used to make some varieties of baklava, as described above), and fried until crisp. Its appeal is the contrasting textures of the crunchy exterior against the soft, melty interior. It can be topped with pistachios, kaymak (clotted cream) or ice cream—or simply eaten on its own, preferably while still piping hot.