Saray – My Turkish dessert education

4**** for how I felt at the beginning, 3*** for how I feel now

I had a longer relationship with Saray than any other restaurant in Istanbul so far in my first year in Istanbul.  Its Istiklal branch in Taksim has a huge window crammed full of sticky looking sweet things that had a Little Match Girl effect on me when I first arrived and would stand, nose pressed to the window, wondering what it all tasted like.  This seemed to be the place to learn about Turkish desserts and I signed up to my self tutored course straight away.

Of course there was baklava at the beginning, the pistachio or walnut kinds.  Impossibly sweet and even better with ice-cream, I eventually went off it after one that was just too syrupy soggy.  Once I started experimenting, I found Kazandibi, the ectoplasm roll with a brown outer layer,  better than anticipated but my expectations had been low.  It had a slightly savoury taste that made me wonder if I had inadvertantly tried the infamous chicken one (Tavuk Goğsu) but luckily I am still innocent of that dessert blasphemy.

Then came Aşure, the one with all the colourful fruits and nuts on top.  It was the one I’d been most intrigued by and apparently there are 40 different ingredients in it.  It’s also called Noah’s pudding as the story goes that Noah, in a Ready, Steady, Cook type challenge had to come up with something when they were marooned on the top of Mount Ararat.

(Did you know Ararat was in Turkey?  I didn’t.  You’ll soon find EVERYTHING was here first – first man to fly, first form of Viagra, all the things you thought were in Greece like Mount Olympos and Troy, first country to give women the vote- according to Turks anyway.)

Anyway, instead of making lots of different dishes like they do on the TV programme, Noah decided to shove everything in together.

Including rice and chickpeas.

In a dessert.

This makes a sort of cinammon  and orange flavoured goo which had a taste faintly like I imagine a Victorian Christmas (Little Match Girl again) and, again, was not that sweet.  I was told pregnant women eat it as, with all the different ingredients, it’s bound to satisfy one of their cravings.  Frankly I am about as likely to have it again as I am to eat coal or ice-cream on avocado, so that makes some sense.

Ekmek Kadayıf, the one that looks like golden syrup soaked sponge with cream cheese filling, was as disappointing as I was now coming to expect.  The “cream cheese” part turned out to be kaymak (clotted cream) and was almost worth the whole dessert which is bread, not cake, and has a monotonous taste and texture which I couldn’t be bothered to finish.  Turks are really missing out on bread and butter pudding if you ask me.

Then Turkish profiteroles.  Truly awful and a blight on the beautiful French dessert.  Fake confectioner’s custard filling, soggy pastry and chocolate sauce that tastes like the stuff they put on McDonalds ice-cream sundaes.

However, one I wasn’t expecting to like was Ayva Tatlisi (Quince Dessert).  Quinces are so bland in their natural form that they soak up sugar and become crackling gorgeousness, especially with an extra bonus of Kaymak.  All the more surprising that the pumpkin version (Kabak Tatlısı) is so dull.  But perhaps Americans would like that as they’re used to pumpkin as a dessert whereas I see it as a soup base.

There are still plenty to try at Saray but I think we came to the point in our relationship where our differences were too great to overcome.  I want butter, sugar and cream in my desserts; for them to be rich instead of just sweet. Saray can only offer sugar and milk.

But, if you’re going to give Turkish desserts a try, this is probably the best place. Branches also in Eminonu and Kanyon shopping mall.


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