Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.
Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akide şekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.
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The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and the Şeker Bayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.
In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.
Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerci Hüseyin Aksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator Banu Özden.)
When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.
Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”
Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.
“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”
Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.
Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.
“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”
Main photo: Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam