It’s not often in life that your dessert comes with a live performance. But in Turkey you should expect some delightful surprises. Just listen in the street for the occasional splash of small bells like a tiny tinkling explosion or someone shouting “ice scaream” and you can find sahlepli dondurma.
Turkish ice cream, often just referred to as dondurma, is more than just frozen milk and sugar. A special ingredient imparts two important qualities that set dondurma apart from other varieties of ice cream: its resistance to melting and an almost bizarre elasticity that allows it to be stretched like chewing gum. While it can come in many varieties – pistachio is popular – the classic flavor is sahlep, a special kind of flour. Or shall we say “flower”?
Sahlep is actually made from the bulbs of a purple orchid that grows wild in the mountainous and high-plateau region of Central Anatolia, the thrust of western Asia that makes up most of modern Turkey. In the spring and summer, the bulbs are dug up and ground into a powder which is used to make a thick, sweetened drink of the same name served hot in the winter. While no one has really pinpointed with certainty the origin of ice cream made with sahlep, the common belief is that its birthplace is the city of Maraş, and suspicions are the ice cream was the result of the drink once being left to freeze.
What thickens the drink turns the ice cream into a rubbery mass so elastic that it is said one can jump rope with it. Demand for the orchid-bulb flour has started to take its toll on the wild flowers, and it has become so prized that it is no longer allowed to be exported from Turkey. But the popularity of sahlep ice cream isn’t just because it is so delicious and chewy.
Turkish ice cream is said to be a cure-all for things from respiratory ailments to cholera, and while some Turks believe that eating cold things can make one sick, many take the risk for this snack on a summer’s day anyway. That may or may not have something to do with sahlep’s reputation as an aphrodisiac.
The Turks weren’t the first to believe in sahlep’s libidinous powers. Romans and Greeks found that the tubers of these orchids which appear in pairs looked an awful lot like testicles. In fact, orchis is Greek for that part of the anatomy. The Arabs concurred: sahlep is from the Arabic sahlab for “fox testicles.”
But despite the nudge-and-wink story behind the consumption of orchid bulbs, most people know dondurma for its rich flavor, its odd texture, and not least of all, its unusual presentation. It’s hard to resist. Ice cream vendors are a type of street performer. It’s a juggler’s act, a shell game, and an artisan demonstration all rolled into one.
An Ice Cream Street Show
It’s a hot summer day and I set out in search of a cool treat. I find Ali the dondurmacı, an ice cream man, behind his counter in Istanbul’s great pedestrian promenade İstiklâl Caddesi.
Dondurma must be worked continuously, using a long metal rod with a small paddle on the end, and Ali leans into one of the canisters before him like he is stirring bubble gum. He works most of the day, perhaps as many as sixteen hours, and so the job takes its toll, covering his hands with thick calluses. But as I watch him raise his eyebrows and cock his head with a mischievous smile at the next potential patron, I see little to suggest he doesn’t enjoy himself.
Even as he stirs, he keeps an eye on passing pedestrian traffic, occasionally shouting to them, or quickly fastening a cone to the end of the metal rod and dangling it in front of the face of someone veering too close to the stand.
Kids love it and follow the dancing cone around the way a cat watches a spot of light zigzagging across the floor. Those who are easily embarrassed step behind their friends, afraid to reach out for the treat, knowing they will be thwarted repeatedly until the end of the act. The reward for patience, however, is delicious.
A young boy steps up and Ali shoves the rod deep into the canister. Out comes a scoop of ice cream and he slaps it onto a cone and digs twice more. From here on, it’s all play.
The ice cream’s cold temperature and elasticity make it adhere to the metal, and Ali plants the cone there at the end of the rod to pass it over the counter to the waiting hands of the boy. The lad reaches for it, but his fingers close on empty air as the cone twirls upside now like an ice cream head with a dunce cap. This happens a couple times and Ali shakes his head in mock disappointment, then grabs it himself and holds it out with his hand. When the boy has the cone in his fingers, he pulls away and just stares down into an empty cone. Ali had placed the cone inside another without anyone noticing. Ali takes back the empty, offers again using the paddle, and this time the ice cream sticks to the metal but comes off the cone.
At one point Ali returns the metal rod to the canister and extracts the entire mass of dondurma, bigger than a large watermelon, and with two hands swings it out over the empty cone while the child’s eyes go wide and the whole crowd giggles.
In the end, the boy is perhaps most surprised when the cone is finally in his hand and in one piece – after a deft, curling flick of the wrist by Ali that makes us all cry out thinking it is destined for the pavement. The crowd applauds, the child licks his prize, and Ali bangs the string of bells with the rod to beckon another customer.
Read more about a year living in Turkey in my book The Yogurt Man Cometh