Occasionally you will still come across pushcarts selling rice pudding, especially late in the evening, but back in the middle of the 20th century the muhallebici was a big feature of İstanbul life. These specialist pudding shops offered an assortment of milk-based desserts including the eponymous muhallebi which was a form of blancmange although the undoubted jewel in the crown was always fırında sütlaç (oven-baked rice pudding), which was served with the skin nicely browned on top.

Muhallebicis also featured other puddings including: 

  • Keşkül. Milk and almond-powder pudding sprinkled with ground almonds and pistachios
  • Tavukgöğsü. One of the most unlikely dishes in the Turkish repertoire since it consists of a sweet milk pudding to which pureed chicken breast has been added
  • Kazandibi. Tavukgöğsü with a caramelized crust
  • Supangle. Thick chocolate mousse served in individual bowls, sometimes with a ball of choux pastry as a tasty surprise in the middle

Actually, “milk” pudding is something of a misnomer as the base for all these dishes is really şübye, which is extracted from rice by soaking it in water and then grinding it to a paste. Some pudding shops use rice flour to set the puddings just as smoothly.

By the end of the 20th century the muhallebicisi had just about died out, although the Saray Muhallebicisi on İstiklal Caddesi just about kept the tradition going. Now the wheel has come full circle, and pudding shops are once more in fashion, albeit in somewhat more cafe-like surroundings.

In the traditional pudding shop you downed your dessert with a glass of water and didn’t expect coffee afterwards. Branches of Bolulu Hasan Usta (BHU) have stuck with that tried and tested recipe but branches of Özsüt offer puddings alongside an array of scrumptious cakes and the sort of choice of drinks that encourage people to linger. Even Saray Muhallebicisi  now offers full meals with kebabs to precede dessert.

Aside from milk-based puddings and baklavas, you may also find some sponge or bread-based desserts on offer.

  • Ekmek tatlısı. Bread pudding flavoured with fruit toppings, especially sour cherry (vişneli)
  • Kemalpaşa. Similar to şekerpare but made from sponge pudding soaked in syrup
  • Revani. Made from semolina and ground pistachios flavoured with vanilla and soaked in syrup, revani is best served with a dollop of cream.
  • Şekerpare. This is made using pre-packaged biscuits that can be soaked in a lemon-flavored syrup; each biscuit has a pistachio in the middle.

All sorts of fruit-based puddings are also on sale. The most common are probably kabak tatlısı (pumpkin dessert), ayva tatlısı (quince dessert), and incir tatlısı (fig dessert), but you will also come across fruit conserves known as hoşaf.

One especially unusual dessert to look out for is aşure which is more or less a meal in its own right and is sometimes called “Noah’s Ark” pudding because of claims that the original aşure was made by Noah’s wife towards the end of the Flood when she mixed together a little of all the 40 items left in the store cupboard.

So popular is aşure that the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharrem (this changes in date every year because the Muslim year follows the phases of the moon) is actually devoted to it. This is the anniversary of the death of the martyr Hüseyin, the grandson of Mohammed, an anniversary especially important to Shiite Muslims. Most Turks may be Sunni, but the Bektaşi sect based in Hacıbektaş in Central Anatolia follows many of the same rituals and helped secure a place for aşure in the Turkish calendar. Many other events are also tentatively attached to this important date – the day Adam met Eve, the day Allah forgave Adam his sins, and perhaps most appropriately the day that Noah finally set foot on dry land after the Flood. In many places in Anatolia women still prepare aşure and distribute it to their neighbors, although the customt is fast dying out in the cities.

By its very nature aşure is a hodge-podge of a dish, and every housewife will have her own favored combination of ingredients, but typically the pudding might contain any of the following mixed together using a special flour called aşurelik to form a rich, sweet soup: barley, chickpeas, lentils, beans, bulgur, sultanas, apricots, cherries, walnuts, hazelnuts, figs, orange peel, pine kernels, and pomegranate seeds. A less commonly cooked variant uses watered-down milk as a basis. Don’t expect to find exactly 40 ingredients – the number has many important connotations in Middle Eastern culture which probably explains why it was picked.

Aşure is sometimes available in pudding shops, but on aşure bayramı you may see normally empty shops hosting groups of women who have got together specifically to make and sell it.

One much-loved dessert that is a specialty of the area around Antakya and the Hatay is künefe which is made from a combination of freshly-made sweet noodles and a special gooey cheese that is placed in the middle, then melts into it perfectly.

The noodles are made by dribbling a flour, sugar and water paste onto a piping hot griddle as it rotates using a special ladle pierced with holes, and then quickly scooping the crisp end product off again. Meanwhile the cheese is prepared separately ready to be mixed with the noodles before baking – it’s a special cheese that is not used for any other cooking purpose. Then the whole thing is baked until crispy whereupon a sugary syrup is poured over the top and sprinkled with grated pistachios.

Since fresh künefe takes time to prepare you should order it at the same time as your starter and main course unless you are in a specialist künefe shop. At its gooey best, künefe is one of the stars in the firmament of Turkish cuisine. Perhaps the best thing about it is that the cheese takes the edge off the sweetness making it perfect for people who find baklava a tad too syrupy.

Sometimes you will also see bowls of a particularly lurid-looking orange dessert in puddig shop windows. This is zerde, a rice pudding made from saffron mixed with rose water and thickened with arrowroot or potato flour. Zerde has an interesting history since it was one of the items served to the famous Janissary soldiers when they arrived at the Topkapı Palace for their three-monthly payday. Every Thursday it was also served to the poor from İstanbul’s many imarets (soup kitchens) to celebrate the approach of Friday, the Muslim holy day.

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