They enjoy it best with a glass of hot clear tea and a pleasant conversation . . . as the old Turkish expression goes, "eat sweetly and you shall speak sweetly".
What is lokum?
Turkish delight, the sweet that melts in your mouth.
And in your hand and your suitcase on the way home . . .
Quiet, you may learn something . . . Lokum is a translucent sweetmeat dusted with icing sugar and flavoured with rosewater, fruit or peppermint, and sometimes filled with pistachios, hazelnuts or ground apricots. Its sensual sweetness makes it the perfect gift for a lover.
But isn't it a bit common?
True, on your Turkish holiday you will see lots of stalls and tourist shops selling precarious pyramids of the stuff but don't mistake quantity with quality. One must be discerning and seek out the best.
And where will you find that?
In the very place that it was invented: a shop in Istanbul owned by the creator of Turkish delight, Haci Bekir.
Is he still alive, then?
Don't be silly, he established the shop in 1777, but it is still run by his family, now in the fifth generation.
Go on, tell me the story.
Way back in the 16th century, Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir set up business as a confectioner in Constantinople with little more than a few pots, pans and some great ideas. He was a skilled chef and lucky enough to be around at the time of the introduction of refined sugar from western Europe. After much experimenting he came up with a sweet jelly-like substance, softer on the throat than boiled sweets and not runny like the traditional lokum. The new textured bonbon was the talk of the city and brought him to the attention of Sultan Abdulhamid.
Did he like the new lokum?
He adored it and made Haci Bekir confectioner to the court.
Turkish delight by Royal Appointment?
That's right, and what is in favour with the palace is a must for the populace, so business boomed.
What was his special recipe?
It's a secret; all we know is that the ingredients included refined sugar, lemon juice and cornflour.
Is that it?
Yes, the fine art is in the combining. You need to get the quantities, temperature and timing just right to produce the correct consistency and flavour. Then there is the tricky business of suspending the fruits and nuts evenly in the mix.
And where did the name Turkish delight come from?
An English traveller in Constantinople heard about Haci's delicacy and brought some home for a friend. The lokum travelled well, his friend was delighted and the rest is history.
Where do I find this shop?
The address is 81-83 on Hamidye Caddesi (Hamidye Street), which runs between Istanbul's main railway station and the Egyptian Bazaar (or Spice Bazaar) on the European side of the city.
Does the shop just sell Turkish delight?
No, it sells lots of goodies: diamond-shaped lozenges of sherbet, pretty stalactites of crystallised sugar, lengths of mastic gum, boiled sweets in big brass-lidded jars and a variety of different-coloured lokum, loose on silver trays.
Sounds like a fairy-tale sweet shop.
More like a fantasy pharmacy.
How do you mean?
In Turkey eating sweets is seen as an aid to health rather than a tooth-rotting vice. For example, the shopkeeper's favourite is the peppermint-flavoured lokum, which he eats when he has a sore throat. He told me that the menthol of the peppermint and the soft texture of the lokum give him the equivalent of an internal steam bath. Similarly, the gum is good for the stomach and the sherbet a post-natal pick-me-up.
So what should I buy?
Try a half-kilo box of mixed flavoured delights or ask to sample any of the dozen or so varieties sold by the 100g. There is little English spoken but the universal language of pointing and smiling works a treat.
What about the cost?
Half a kilo of mixed costs 2.4 million Turkish lire (about £1.25). Individual specials start at 85p for rose lokum and go up to more than £3 for the enormous walnut whorls. And, by the way, inflation is savage in Turkey at the moment, so prices may change.
But is lokum just a tourist gift?
No, Turks continue to eat large quantities on holidays, birthdays and special occasions, and take it as a gift to people's homes rather as we take flowers. They enjoy it best with a glass of hot clear tea and a pleasant conversation . . . as the old Turkish expression goes, "eat sweetly and you shall speak sweetly".
What about getting it home?
Part of the charm of the shop is the packaging. Sturdy tins and boxes each hand-wrapped with green Haci Bekir paper, tied up with pink ribbon and given a gold stamp to prove authenticity. Pure lokum travels well and usually lasts up to a year.