Macuncu are lollipop crafters, twirlers of stretchy, sweet, colorful syrups that are pooled in a deeply wedged tin that rests atop a folding tray. Their storefront is the street. Their shingle is a signature pull of glistening fruit and herb-stained syrups. It takes maybe 90 seconds for a macuncu to make a macun — a lollipop of Ottoman origin that dates back half a millennium.
I connected with that tradition last summer when I met Banu Özden of Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi, the Culinary Arts Center of Istanbul. At the time, I was curating a collection of international food craft tools. Özden was presenting an extraordinary visual archive of vessels and tools used by Istanbul’s street vendors over the past 200 years. I was thoroughly taken by the design ingenuity and material variety of the vendors. It seemed right to launch a series on food craft tools with this gem from the storied city that straddles two continents.
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A series on international food craft tools
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“It’s not taffy, it’s sticky stuff,” says Elchin Orer, an Eskişehir-raised, Washington, D.C.-based artist and interior designer, correcting my shorthand for macun. “It’s more of a heavy syrup that stays on the stick while you lick it. Kids love it. The vendors used to set up outside of school and we’d get one stick for 5 cents.”
Turkish yarn purveyor and master knitter Aylin Bener of İzmir agreed. She recalled the macuncus being as much a part of the school day as classroom instructors. “When school let out, he was there. Same vendor, same place, at the same time, every day. You don’t ask questions, you just expect him to be there to give you sweets!” To talk with Turks of a certain generation about macun is to understand the fleeting transaction as a total sensory experience. Buying macun and watching it crafted from a pinwheel of glistening sugar was as much fun as eating it.
A macuncu’s actions are like a conductor’s — rhythmic and knowing. With a syrup pull, called macun mablağı, in one hand and a wooden lollipop stick in another, macuncus lift, dollop, spin, pull, dip and repeat until their customer has the macun of their choice. No clunky globs, just elegant lines of jewel-toned syrups forming a corkscrew of up to five distinct tastes. Perhaps a crimson swirl made from cornelian cherry juice rests under a limey emerald twist — both topped with a glossy ivory spiral that’s heady with cinnamon or rose.
The ingredients for macun are quite simple: caster sugar, water, cream of tartar, citric acid and “the aromas” — which are usually spices or fruit essences. And, when needed, food coloring — often still naturally derived, though some vendors use synthetic colorants. The sugar, water, cream of tartar and citric acid are stirred together over a low heat until the sugar melts and the mixture begins to bubble. The heat is then turned off and an aroma and a natural coloring are added and mixed thoroughly. The whole sticky batch is then poured into one of the five sections of the macun tray. This process is repeated by the macuncu until his tray, his macun tepsisi, is filled with the flavors he wants to offer.
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The tools of the itinerant macuncu are equally as simple: a tray, a holder, syrup pulls and candy sticks. The trays, called macun tepsisi, are large metal rounds several inches deep. As Özden explained, macun trays always have six sections: five that are triangular and form the syrup compartments and one small center bowl that cradles a lemon half. Originally they were produced by Ottoman coppersmiths who finished them in a customary tin dip (tinned copper).
Nowadays, given the rise in food service regulations, the glut of factory-prepared sweets and the decline of macuncus, Özden said that the macun tepsisi are almost always stainless steel, produced to code by just a handful of stainless-steel kitchen-supply manufacturers.
The syrup dipsticks — the macuncu’s conductor batons are called macun mablağı and they range from pantry butter knife to intricate wood-handled stainless-steel skewers depending on the location, means and style of the macuncu. Finally, before a freshly swirled macun is handed over to a customer, it is passed over a juicy lemon half at the center of the tray both for the tart flourish and to tighten the syrupy swirls.
The history of macun
While it is nostalgically recollected as an after-school treat (and now a touristic event), macun’s origins are medicinal. Much like an amaro or an herbal electuary, the original, “supreme” macun candy, mesir macunu, was a vehicle for a potent blend of curative digestive herbs, with the sugar acting as a preservative. A true elixir, it was a remedy for all that ailed one.
According to history, legend and Ottoman pharmacopeia, Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent was afflicted with a mysterious illness, incurable by court physicians, masseurs, cooks, the clergy. … Finally, a local pharmacist created mesir macunu, a special mix of herbs macerated in a sugary paste. The ambrosial medicine cured Hafsa Sultan.
Both the Queen Mother and Suleiman became evangelists of mesir macunu, and they began a tradition that continues today (the 474th Annual Manisa Mesir Festival took place in the spring of 2014) of preparing enough mesir macunu for their subjects’ well-being. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the festival involves a bevy of chefs replicating (by the ton) the ancient recipe of 41 spices and herbs. Once mixed, the mesir macunu is cut and wrapped by a designated team of women who then pass the candies along to imams that bless the candy before it is tossed to crowds from the Sultan Mosque’s minaret and domes.
Certainly, the street-side version, made with flourish and attention to craft, is as good for the daily spirit.
Main photo: Macun. Credit: Wikimedia / Nosferatü