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A Magical Turn For Turkish Color Wheel Of Sweets

Macun

Macun

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.

A SLICE OF LIFE


A series on international food craft tools

Next: Cane pressing tools, a profile of an American sugarcane mill

“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.

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.

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

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



Zester Daily contributor Makalé Faber-Cullen captains The Wilderness of Wish―an ethnographic research consultancy and design practice that is home to anthropologists, writers and artists in New York, London, Beirut and Berkeley. We fancy ourselves inspired cartographers of landscapes - lived cultural ones and fantastical imagined others. Prior to establishing her studio, Makalé worked at several legacy cultural institutions including Slow Food, City Lore, CUNY and the Smithsonian Institution. Makalé has produced installations, exhibits, publications, campaigns and products that explore and celebrate material culture, foodways and community. More detail at wildernessofwish.net. Her foodways related writing/work can be found in "Urban Farms" (2012, Abrams) and "Renewing America's Food Traditions" (2008, Chelsea Green).

10 COMMENTS
  • mary 11·15·14

    Fascinating article (and pictures and video clip) about macun! And I loved reading all the other linked articles about Turkish desserts. What a good idea and what a great e-magazine Zester is.

  • sujatha 1·22·15

    what an interesting article. Loved reading it and the pix. Makes me want to be in turkey for the next Manisa Mesir festival.

  • Makale 1·22·15

    Thanks kindly, Mary and Sujatha! It’s such a beautiful tradition and the range of styles is impressive. Yes! The Manisa Mesir festival is something to experience! What a legend….They’re are fewer and fewer macuncu around unfortunately. I’d love to see this style of food craft + vending return – perhaps here 🙂

  • Alex 8·22·15

    Greetings,

    I just found your blog, and would love to know where I can find more information on the exhibit of the collection of international food craft tools mentioned in the article.

    Traditional food and local ingredients always fascinate me when I travel, but as a traveler I do not always have access to a local’s kitchen to see what tools are used (or were used once upon a time), so I am always very curious.

    Your help will be greatly appreciated!

    Cheers,
    Alex

  • Makale 8·22·15

    Hi, Alex, thanks kindly for your note + query. Hm, the European one I mentioned was part of the 2013 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which focused on material culture. You can see proceedings here: http://www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/2013-material-culture/

    There are collections of what I call ‘food craft tools’ in various museums and historic sites internationally…what part of the world are you interested in?

    Banu Özden really is a gem, if you’re interested in Turkey…I’m sure she’d share the digital collection she’s built. The link to them is in the article. Tell her I said hello!

    Also, there’s a neat little project in NYC, called The League of Kitchens which I think you might like. They pair tradition bearers with people interested in that culture’s foodways over a cooking class in that person’s home–which includes dish-specific tools. See: https://www.leagueofkitchens.com/ They’re only based in NYC as far as I know…I’m not sure where you are, but maybe you can contact them to follow up/take a course or… start the satellite League of Kitchens wherever you are. Why not?!

    Let us know what you discover! You can always DM me via twitter @makale_makale

    All bests, Makalé

    • Alex 8·22·15

      Greetings Makale,

      Thank you for the very informative and useful reply!

      My fascination with traditional cookware is more about how humans interacted with their environment, using whatever resources available, and also how their cultural/religious beliefs influence the form/use of these tools. Therefore, it is not region specific. (I’m greedy, I know. Part of it is also because I do not know enough to have identified an area of particular interest).

      I currently live in Taiwan – a small island but with its own set of “melting pot” cultures.
      You’ve given me quite a bit of food for thought in terms of how I can further explore this interest and fascination of mine of traditional cooking tools/ingredients and perhaps even do something to expand it/include others!

      Really appreciate you taking the time to share your wealth of knowledge, and I look forward to learning more from your writing!

      Cheers,
      Alex
      P.S. Just curious – would you happen to have come across information on cookware and dishes from the Ainu people in Hokkaido, Japan? During a recent visit to the Ainu cultural center in Sapporo, I saw a serving bowl with a cutting board attached. The description left me with more questions than answers. The “dish” seemed to carry so much rich cultural information but I couldn’t access it. Unfortunately there was no one at the center while I was there, and even if there was, my survival Japanese wouldn’t have gotten me far… and online search in English hadn’t turned up much… now that I am reminded of it, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask… 🙂

  • Bohojo777 9·29·15

    I lived in Istanbul for 6 months and never once came across this stuff though I wish I had as i love rose and cinnamon flavoured anything. If I go back to Istanbul i’ll keep my eye out for this stuff. One thing I remember eating was a mussel with spices rice delicacy served by the bridge with a squeeze of lemon, they were delicious, in fact all food across Turkey is delicious. I took my partner to Turkey Olu Deniz and he loved it, he said it was nothing how he imagined Turkey and its people to be, saif he could easily live there and that it reminded him of the 80’s in a very good way, a place where people lived freely and there wasn’t a camera watching you on every corner in fact we never saw a coppa at all yet everyone lives peacefully. The Turkish people are wonderful, very friendly and open

  • makale 9·29·15

    Hello, Alex! Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. How wonderful that you were able to visit Hokkaido! When I lived in Sweden, I had many classmates from Japan – mainly Osaka-but one from Hokkaido – and I remember his painterly descriptions of it…Lucky you! 🙂

    I haven’t come across any info on the serving bowl…but I have put out some queries to colleagues who might, based on your description. It sounds interesting + clever. Do you have the books by Hideyuki Oka? “How to Wrap Five Eggs” – those are gems…and may have an echo of what you saw? Or, at least an orientation to geography and how it may have informed the Ainu design. Also “Japanese Country Living” by Amy Katoh…not Hokkaido specific, but she has a helpful bibliography and materials/products guide in the appendix.

    Meanwhile, maybe try contacting chef/writer Nancy Singleton Hachisu (nancyhachisu@me.com) she may know as she writes on traditional Japanese food craft > nancysingletonhachisu.com (her email is public, so it seems okay to share). Let us know what you find!
    All good things,
    Makalé

  • makale 9·29·15

    Hi BohoJo, Nice that life took you to Istanbul for half a year…dee-light! Yes, it’s hard to find these sellers anymore – victims, perhaps, of “urban planning” and “public health” and shifts in imports/exports and in scaled confectionary manufacturing…so many things. They’re mainly in touristy areas now – parts you probably steered clear of but they’re here and there.

    It’s very lucky though that you were able have the LEGENDARY MUSSELS! You must’ve had a good in…someone to steer you towards the best, freshest, tastiest stall. A bad mussel can lay you out flat for days, ooph!

    I love that you are sharing the friendliness of Turkish people – so true. I was just with family a few weeks ago and our friends (my parent’s generation) were lamenting the recent conservative turns, hushing what was lyrical….glad you experienced what they hold dear > the electric + free + curious + connected moments. Even that, not perfect, but alas. To much, and more of the openness + peaceful living in diverse communities. And, to Turkish food, still a seductive and charming ambassador. All bests to you and yours – Makalé

  • Angelina 10·7·16

    Where can I buy the wheel that warms up the Turkish candy

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