When I walked into Hadji Bekir’s shop on Hamidiye Street near Istanbul’s Golden Horn, it was like entering a child’s dream. Wherever I looked, there were containers brimming with enticing confectionery… a dozen jars with polished brass lids stood on only counter packed with a kaleidoscope of bonbon, red, yellow, cinnamon and stripy ones. Nowhere was there any sign of mass production, only silver trays arranged with rows and rows of pastel-colored marzipan, individual chocolate shape, and enormous macaroons. My mouth watered. On another counter, a man was busy, cutting long sausage-like lengths of Turkish Delight that I particularly wanted to write about.
The owner, Mr. Dogan Sahin, happened to be inside. After welcoming me he said, “We do not call it Turkish Delight. That name was invented by a now unknown British traveler who took some back to London in the 18th century… We, Turks still call it by its proper name, rahat lokum.”
He explained that etymology of the word lokum has puzzled linguists for many years; it seems to be a corruption of an Arabic word, meaning, we have eaten. Rahat is a Turkish word, meaning peace or contentment, therefore the correct translation is we have eaten contentment. So, the English traveler who dubbed it delight was not far off.
Mr. Sahin began to relate the fascinating story of Hadji Bekir and the food of contentment. In 1776, during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid I, Bekir Effendi, a fully apprenticed confectioner, arrived in Constantinople from a small town in Anatolia. The capital he (Bekir) brought here with him was not great, continued Mr. Sahin. It consisted of a few copper cauldrons with which he set up in a little shop in the center of the city. What he did have was his secret recipe for a delicious new sweetmeat.
Was this then the birth of the delight? The truth, it seems, is something of a mystery. What is clear is that Hadji Bekir was the Wily Wonker of his day and among a people with such a sweet tooth as the Turks, he quickly won fame and fortune. Fashionable ladies began giving it to their friends in special lace handkerchiefs. Thus gifted with energy, enterprise, and originality, he was appointed Chief Confectioner to the Ottoman Court, said Mr. Sahin, who went on to describe how some of each batch was sampled by tasters before it reached the lips of the Sultan.
Mr. Sahin showed me a reproduction of the celebrated Hadji Bekir painting by the Italian artist Preziosi, which now hangs in the Louvre. It depicts the venerable bearded and turbaned confectioner weighing for a wealthy veiled lady, with two children and a cat looking on.
Hadji Bekir passed away shortly after the painting was completed. But the business continued to flourish and expand. Hadji Bekir’s son and grandson opened shops in Cairo and started exporting it to Europe. The last male heir died in 1974 and his daughter married Mr. Sahin. The sons, although not Bekir’s, will inherit the thrivil company. Try the lemon flavor; it’s my favorite, he said, presenting me with a silver tray piled high with nearly 20 mouth-watering varieties of Turkish Delight. I popped one into my mouth and it melted on my tongue. I reached for another piece.
I then sampled the pistachio, coconut, mas (which is purported to have medicinal value), and rose petal flavors and asked Mr. Sahin if there was anything he could tell me about how lokum is made – without, of course giving away the company secret techniques-explained that first only the very fine ingredients are selected, the principle of being sugar, starch, and cream tartar. But the real key, he continued in the cooking mixture should be heated to precisely? Fahrenheit, it overcooks it becomes too hard, and undercooked, it won’t keep its shape when cooled. Turkish families continue to eat large quantities of rahat lokum on holidays and birthdays because it remains fresh for six months if stored at room temperature, most households keep some hand for guests. Furthermore, anyone from provinces who visits the city is expected to be back a box or two for his fellow villagers. And besides those who forget!
With a hand-wrapped package of goodies two under my arm, I thanked Mr. Sahin for his help.
As I left Hadji Bekir’s, I almost stumbled over young schoolboys who were peering dread through the shop windows. They eagerly count out their small change and then pushed the open door. Their dream, too, was about to become a reality.