With limited time to see the sites, I negotiated my way through the warren of cobbled streets of this ancient city. Side-stepping tea carrying waiters, I window shopped past rows of curio displays and fended off enthusiastic carpet salesmen, before my interest was suddenly arrested by the most succulent, vivid and artistic display imaginable. I stood motionless, drooling at a colourful window display of Turkish Delights.
The story goes that, in an attempt to appease his many wives, a famous Sultan ordered his confectioner to create a unique sweet. The confectioner blended a concoction of sugar syrup, various flavourings, nuts and dried fruits and bound them together with mastic (gum Arabic). After several attempts, the most delectable treat was the final result. The delighted Sultan proclaimed the sweet maker the court’s chief confectioner and thereafter, a plate of Lokum – meaning morsel or mouthful in Arabic – later to be known as Turkish Delight- was served at daily feasts in the Ottoman court.
The vast array of the sugar dusted cubes displayed made deciding which ones to sample more taxing. Waving my hand across the entire display, I instructed the amused shop hand, “at least one of each!”
Bagged sweet companion in hand my first stop was the Blue Mosque. As no eating inside was allowed I remained outside and sank my teeth into the rosewater, flavoured sponge, and crunched through a pistachio. My polite nibbling turned to incessant gobbling and two, dried fruit and nut pieces later, I settled into the shadows of the Egyptian Obelisk and Serpentine Column at the remains of the Hippodrome to wolf down more, un-interrupted. The mouth-watering flavours of; ginger, coconut, cinnamon, chocolate, and mint were savoured and quickly devoured. The sugar had taken hold, and I raced across the Galata bridge spanning the natural harbour of the Golden Horn.
I chomped my way up towards the Galata Tower , which has sat high overlooking the Golden Horn, since the 6th century. I squeezed shoulder to shoulder with the other tourists experiencing the late afternoon bird’s eye view of the old city. Sugar rush over, my drowsy eyes and my empty carrier bag reminded me that I had had enough for one day.
Waking early I ventured out with the idea of an apple tea and Baklava treat later. I raced through the Basilica Cistern, the Haghia Sophia and shortly thereafter I found myself sitting, and enjoying a tulip glass full of refreshing apple tea – while sizing up the endless display of this Ottoman sweet pastry on display at a very popular Baklava cafe.
The exuberant shop-owner explained his passion- the perfect piece of Baklava. “The first form of the thinly leafed, phyllo, pastry was developed in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace when the local sultan presented trays of baklava to the household bodyguards every 15th of the month of Ramadan -in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alay?. It is no wonder that it’s called the Sultan’s dessert.”
“Each of the 40 layers of leafed phyllo is hand rolled so thin, that you can read a newspaper through it before it gets baked, and cooked to such a degree that it comes out golden brown and crisp. We baste it with just enough syrup so that not to leave the base soggy, and allowing for the rich taste of either the; hazelnuts, walnuts , pistachios, or chocolate to ooze through.”
By now I’m onto my third piece of this rich yet succulent national treasure, and I wonder if there’s room for more.
“Each piece weighs 150g, big enough to enjoy, but small enough to entice some more,” he says knowingly.
“Have as much Baklava as you can eat so you can tell all your friends about our good food and generous people,” he smiles.
During my brief stay in this buzzing city I’ve had a complete sensory experience. I’ve marvelled at the history, listened to the daily melodic chants and I’ve tasted paradise. My last treat before heading out was a quick jaunt to the Spice Bazaar. 7 million tourists visit Istanbul annually, and as I entered the labyrinth, it felt as if the other 6 999 999 tourists were there with me.
Jostling along with the tide of people, my olfactory went into overdrive at the spiced scents wafting from the mounds of coloured textures on synchronised display? With limited time, I stock up with exotic spices and teas, including love tea – after I’m told that I’d be pursued by hordes of adoring women offering endless nights of passion.
Overweight with edible gifts which I’m sure will be eaten long before reaching their final destination, and undecided on what to fill my mouth with next, I realise that; besides the history and architectural masterpieces, Istanbul is worth visiting just for its sweet delicacies.