Turkish cuisine is one of the most diverse and interesting in the world. Turkey’s strategic location straddling two continents, its borders with seven neighboring nations, and its long history as the Ottoman Empire have influenced more than just the culture but the cuisine as well. Turkey’s claim to fame is probably kebabs, but there is so much more to the food than that. Turkish people love desserts and sweets form a huge part of their society. The reason is because Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol, so Turks created a host of sweets for celebrations and religious ceremonies. Everyone has heard of baklava and Turkish delight, but there are five desserts you might not have heard of that you cannot miss when you’re in the country.
Künefe takes unsalted cheese and sandwiches it between layers of flaky pastry dough. This concoction is either baked or fried, coated in sugar syrup, topped with clotted cream and ground pistachios, and served warm. The cheese is mild in flavor, the best Western equivalent would be mozzarella, and the crunchy dough is just sweet enough to contrast with the savory, stringy cheese.
Turkish desserts are full of puddings and one of the most interesting and beloved is tavuk gögsü. Tavuk gögsü is similar to rice pudding, but its made with chicken instead of rice. Yes, shredded chicken in dessert. Chicken breast is boiled, then shredded, then reboiled in milk with sugar, rice or corn starch, cinnamon, and vanilla. The finished dessert tastes nothing like chicken, but the chicken lends a nice elastic texture from the long time it spends boiling.
Asure is another one of Turkey’s favorite puddings. Asure’s nickname is Noah’s pudding because there are so many ingredients in it. Asure can include many different things but it always has grains (usually chickpeas, beans, and/or wheat), dried fruit (figs, apricots, raisins), and nuts. First the grain is boiled and then soaked overnight until all the liquid is absorbed. Then the fruits, beans or chickpeas, lemon or orange zest, and sugar are added and everything is boiled again until thickened. After it cools, the pudding is garnished with nuts, seeds, and more dried fruits. Asure is another example of Turks using typically savory ingredients to make delicious sweets. Asure is absolutely delicious, the pudding is rich and creamy but the many different ingredients provide various textures and flavors, all of which work surprisingly well together.
Dondurma is Turkish ice cream and it is completely different than any ice cream around the world. All over the country you will see vendors dressed like Ali Baba in tiny red vests and matching hats, ringing a bell, and swinging around some confection on the end of a stick, usually surrounded by onlookers. Dondurma is a show as well as a sweet, because it is elastic ice cream. Most ice creams pride themselves on being smooth, but not dondurma. A few special ingredients give dondurma its special stretchy texture. Of course it contains milk, sugar, and other flavorings, but it also has mastic (resin from an evergreen tree that makes it chewy) and salep (a powder from the bulbs of wild orchids that acts as a thickening agent). The thickness and chewiness of dondurma gives it a completely different mouth feel than most ice creams. Dondurma comes in pretty standard Turkish flavors: vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, sour cherry, among others. Give it a try and see how you feel about thick, stretchy ice cream.
In addition to desserts, Turks adore pastries and excel at making them. Revani is a perfect blend of the two, essentially a sweet bread-cake. Revani is a dense cake made from semolina, wheat flour, oil, yogurt, sugar, and eggs. It is then soaked in sugar syrup with orange flower water and topped with chopped pistachios. Even without the syrup, revani has a wonderfully dense texture due to the yogurt and semolina. The syrup makes it almost dangerously sweet, but the orange flower water cuts it just enough and keeps it from being too sweet.
When visiting Turkey, of course, one must sample their hundreds of kebabs, soups, and vegetable dishes. However, there is a reason there is a sweet shop on every corner. Turks are masters of desserts, and they have so many that should not be missed. There’s even a pudding with chicken in it, you might be surprised at how much you like it!