The story of a 240-year-old sweet shop that makes Turkish Delights fit for a king
In 1777, Bekir Effendi began creating mouth-watering lokums (Turkish Delights) that were introduced to the Ottoman Palace. Not long after, he was appointed Chief Confectioner to the Sultan, and the rest we shall say, made history!
Meet 30-year-old Leyla Celalyan, the boss of Haci Bekir, a five-generation confectionery that has been making traditional Turkish sweets since the days of the Ottoman Empire. “It’s the oldest family business in Turkey and the nature of the business is about happiness and spreading happiness,” she enthused.
While its known for its diverse range of traditional candies, its star item is undoubtedly the Turkish Delight, which Celalyan believes her great grandfather, Bekir Effendi, invented.
As the Royal Palace’s Chief Confectioner during the Ottoman Empire, Effendi had the privilege of travelling around Europe to promote the Ottoman culture and its cuisine, while discovering new cooking techniques and innovations.
Around the early 19th century, when cornstarch and refined sugar were introduced, he altered his original recipe to include these new ingredients, which created the distinct chewiness in Turkish Delight that’s loved by all. This remains in the same recipe the family uses today, one they have kept secret for generations.
“It wouldn’t be fair to call him the innovator of Turkish Delights, since it’s an anonymous recipe, but he is the inventor of the modern Turkish Delight that we’re producing and eating right now,” she affirmed.
The Turkish Delight or “lokum” is a small, jellied cube made of cornstarch and sugar, dusted with icing sugar to prevent the cubes from sticking together. It can either be flavoured with rosewater, lemon and others, or come with fillings such as pistachios, hazelnuts or walnuts.
“The most popular sweet would be Turkish Delight with pistachio – the most classic. Turkish Delight with rose also has quite a number of fans,” shared Celalyan.
A good Turkish Delight shouldn’t be cloyingly sweet that it torches your throat, and it should be soft and chewy but not stick to the teeth. Haci Bekir ticks all the boxes. “I’m super proud of it because we’re doing everything to keep the taste the same. We don’t always stick to a standard recipe because ingredients change, the climate changes. But the secret is the confectioner’s control,” she attested.
The flagship store is in Eminonu, its original location for the past two hundred years – a prime example of a heritage business that has endured the test of time. “During the Ottoman Empire, this location was really important because it was close to the palace. All trading was done here too as it was close to the old trading harbour of Golden Horn. It was an important place and is still an important neighbourhood,” she said.
Although you can purchase Haci Bekir’s delicious treats online, or even find it at selected shops abroad, nothing beats savouring all the wonderful varieties of lokum in its home setting. This sweet shop has a charming old-world atmosphere. The original decor has been preserved, and they still use the same jars and equipment. While lokum is Haci Bekir’s most popular product, the store also sells hard candies, nut pastes and halva, as well as biscuits, cakes and pastries.
Despite being founded by a man, Haci Bekir’s success is largely thanks to the business savvy of generations of women. “My grandmother was the only child, a girl who took over the business. And then came my aunt and my mother. Now I’m here so it’s a nice thing to have. Haci Bekir is such a masculine and traditional name but when you look at the company, it’s been mostly females at the head,” she shared.
For Celalyan, growing up watching the women in her family manage the business was something she aspired to do. “I had a dream childhood! I can say that because I was surrounded by candies and sweets all the time. I barely reached the counters and the jars, but I was still trying to serve sherberts or lemonade,” she laughed. “Imagine working in a place where you can taste every kind of sweet you’re producing. It’s amazing and now I’m doing what I always wanted to do.”
With five stores in operation in Istanbul, plus a thriving online business, there is a lot of pressure for Celalyan to succeed in her role as manager. “I feel the pressure all the time because it’s a company that’s survived for 242 years, that includes two world wars, many civil wars and economic crises. The challenge now is staying relevant and adapting to the needs of the customers,” she said.
Partnering with established restaurants in Istanbul, like Pandeli, has also helped Haci Bekir to expand its reach and diversify the business. “We have a close relationship with Pandeli as we’re close neighbours in Eminonu. You can find our products there, especially candied coriander, a typical Turkish dessert for after meals, plus our most famous Turkish Delights and hard candies,” she shared.
With consumers getting more health conscious, Celalyan has had to create new flavours to cater to discerning palates. Constantly experimenting, she studies old local recipes and desserts from other cultures to see how they can be incorporated into her sweets. “Households are getting smaller and people are consuming less sweets. We are working on new stuff to keep up with a new generation,” she revealed.
She’s not afraid to try unusual ingredients like coffee, chilli and ginger. In fact, some of her more unique hard candy flavours include ones made with cinnamon, sesame, anise and violet. She also created a small sugar-free line for diabetics.
One of her biggest challenges is preserving Haci Bekir’s heritage. “The older customers, they caution us, ‘You’re Haci Bekir. You’re traditional, you can’t be this modern’. But I think it’s really important to blend modern elements with traditional ones to keep the tradition alive,” she affirmed.
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living. Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.