Sherbet and SpiceThe Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts

This is much more than Turkish delight and baklava. A fascinating an informative look into the history and traditions that have made Turkish confectionery as delicious as it is. It makes one appreciate these delicacies all that much more.

The stories behind Turkey’s huge variety of sweets and puddings are as fascinating as their multiplicity of flavours. This riveting exploration of their history and role in Turkish culture is a voyage of adventure, taking us from the sultan’s palace to the homes of ordinary people in Turkey’s villages and towns, and beyond to Central Asia, Persia, Arabia, Egypt and the Levant. This is the land of Turkish delight perfumed with rosewater and musk, rose jam, whose praises were sung by Rumi, asure, zerde tinted with saffron, baklava filled with nuts, clotted cream or cheese, milk puddings and helvas, strings of nuts dipped in grape syrup, lollipops in the shape of animals and model gardens built of sugar carried in wedding processions. The first study of Turkish confectionery ever to be published, Sherbet and Spice offers a rare look at the evolution of sweets from the non-European angle, based on many Turkish sources little known outside Turkey that lend a new dimension to the subject.

Mary Isin has lived in Turkey since 1973. She has translated over 150 books on Turkish history, culture and archaeology and in 1983 she started researching Ottoman cuisine and learnt Ottoman Turkish so as to be able to read old cookery books. She is the author of The Turkish Kitchen and a forthcoming encyclopaedic dictionary of Ottoman cuisine.

Mary Isin was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about her new book: Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts


When you first arrived in Turkey what did you know Turkish food?

Absolutely nothing! But my husband’s family were into eating and cooking. Everything was marvellous, especially the vegetable dishes. I am not a very skilled cook, but I love eating, so I soon learned how to make my favourites, like mantı (stuffed noodles served with garlic yogurt), spinach filled börek, aşure (a soft pudding made with wheat grains, chickpeas, dried fruits and nuts) etc.


Why does turkey seem to have such a unique appreciation for confectionery?

Because sweet things symbolize happiness, good will and good luck, sweets and desserts are eaten on all kinds of special occasions as part of the celebrations. During the holiday at the end of Ramazan you have to eat baklava, and during the month of Muharrem people cook lots of aşure and distribute small bowls of it to friends and neighbours. Visitors are always offered a sweet of some kind with tea or coffee. Even funerals have their special sweet dishes – semolina helva in Istanbul and central Turkey, and small doughnuts in the Aegean region – which are distributed to everyone who visits the bereaved family.


What made you decide to tackle the history of Turkish confectionery?

In the early 1980s I read some books and articles about Turkish culinary history and was hooked immediately. History is much more interesting viewed through food and customs relating to food. Sweets and sweet foods marked all the events in people’s lives in Ottoman Turkey, from a child’s first day at school to getting married. When friends and neighbours got together on winter evenings some people cooked helva while others sang songs and told riddles. I was also interested in the origin and development of the different kinds of Turkish sweets. No one had ever written about these things so I realized that if I wanted a book like that I would have to research and write it myself.


What surprises visitors the most about Turkish sweets?

The huge variety. Everyone has heard of Turkish delight and baklava, though perhaps never had the chance to taste really well made versions. But there are so many others that are hardly known outside Turkey, like pişmaniye, a kind of helva with the texture of thistledown made of sugar, flour and butter, kazandibi, a caramelized milk pudding with shredded chicken’s breast, and sucuk, strings of nuts dipped in grape syrup. The range of flavours and textures is amazing, and the history of each one is different.


You’ve written about Turkish food before and have lived in the country for years. Despite this was there anything that you came across in you research that surprised you?

The kind of surprise I love best is coming across historical foods that are supposed to have disappeared long ago. The first time it happened was 10 years ago when I was served hot, cheese-filled baklava at a conference lunch in the eastern Turkish city of Urfa. This was a version of baklava that I had read about in old Ottoman cookery books, but no one I knew in Istanbul had even heard of such a thing, never mind actually eaten it. Now I never believe people if they say something has died out. The world’s largest carrot used to be grown in the town of Beypazarı near Ankara, but all the farmers now grow Dutch hybrids so these huge orange carrots 80cm-100 cm long have been unobtainable for years. But I found one elderly farmer who still has some seeds and he has promised to plant some for me this year.


What are you working on now?

Heritage seeds are my main interest at the moment. Turkey is a centre of biodiversity for many crops but modern varieties have replaced most of the traditional varieties. Wheat was first domesticated in Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey, and the ancient cultivated wheat called einkorn is still grown in a few places. Bulgur made from einkorn is delicious and also nourishing because of the high protein and mineral content. We run a heritage fruit project, and our field surveys in Muğla province have revealed over 550 local varieties, including 125 pears, 97 figs, 90 grapes, 82 almonds, 30 apples and 18 plums, as well as water melons, melons, pomegranates, olives, mulberries and citrus fruits.

‘…a superbly written social history, revealing a new dimension to Turkish food and culture.’
– The Bookseller


‘Mary Isin has penned a masterpiece in its field. This is a dizzying book that carries us into daily life, social life and the world of customs and traditions.’
– Selim Ileri, Zaman


‘The Turks have been famous for their sweet tooth since the days when so many confectioners worked at the Topkapi Palace that they had their own mosque. Sweets permeate Turkish life. Mary Isin has gathered a mountain of information on this rich subject – recipes from the Middle Ages to the present, science, history and folkways. It’s a sweet read.’
– Charles Perry, food historian


‘A fascinating and informative exploration of the role of sweetness in Turkish culture over the centuries.’
– Laura Mason, food historian and author of Sugar-plums and Sherbet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *