Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

Güllaç, Baklava and Ekmek Kadayifi

When we planned to visit Turkey during the month of Ramazan, one of the things we looked forward to was the food. “There’s bound to be special food that’s only made in this month,” The Family told me. So when we finished our dinner on the second of the month, we asked the friendly waiter about special Ramazan sweets. That’s how we encountered Güllaç (pronounced guellash). We were too full to try one of these enormous helpings that evening (featured photo). When we did later, we were charmed by the thin layered pastry, filled with crushed nuts and pomegranate and oozing milk. The food of Ramazan is usually very traditional, so Güllaç is probably close to the origins of Turkish food.

Our evening’s guide through the esoteric world of Turkish sweets led us to the counter where varieties of sweets were on display. Another speciality of Ramazan, we were told, is the Ekmek Kadayifi. Ekmek is Turkish for bread, and the name of this dish would translate to bread pudding. It is essentially bread soaked in syrup and topped off with clotted cream (called kaymak). What made it special? Perhaps only a cultural connection with this month. I understand that the Id which signals the end of Ramazan is celebrated as Seker Bayrami, a time when plates full of sweets are served to family and friends. The simple Ekmek Kadayifi finds a place on this plate.

The cafe was full of Turkish families at their Iftari dinner. The children were happy at this treat at the end of a long and stressful day. Many of them ended their meals with Güllaç or Ekmek Kadayifi, but a significant fraction also had the perennial favourite, baklava, on their table. Baklava was another syrup soaked delight that I would get to love a little too much. After the trip I had to work hard to shed a couple of kilos which I attribute entirely to these nut-filled syrupy pastries.