Saturday, February 28, 2009

Turkish Ice Cream

Click on this video to see the Turkish ice cream vendor fool his customer:

A dozen or so of you will remember the strange and unique ice cream we enjoyed on our trip to Turkey. I have recently come upon the ingredients of that cold, but chewy and stretchy substance called dondurma in the Turkish language.

I was intrigued when first reading about it in the tour guide books preparing for the trip. They said it was stretchy, chewy, and so tough "you could tow a car with it". It is said you could eat it with a knife and fork and there are pictures of people jumping rope with it. Who wouldn't want to try this when reaching the exotic destination of Istanbul?

It turns out the secret ingredients, along with the traditional milk and sugar, are two items unknown to us in the United States. One is called simply gum, which is a resin from a particular pine tree grown on a tiny island in Greece. This resin, which is dried and ground helps elasticize the finished product, but also gives flavor. Some dondurma is made without gum if the flavor is not desired.

On a molecular level it is the polymers, which are long molecules with repeating units (think: beaded necklaces) that produce the stretchiness. Polymers make cornstarch a good thickener and cause gelatin to gel.

The second mysterious ingredient is called salep, which is a dried and powdered tuber of a particular wild Orchid plant grown in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey. Konjac flour is made from the orchid plant called Amorphophallus konjac. This plant can grow to six feet and “smells like a garlicky, decomposing elephant”—not at all like most orchids. One thing that salep and konjac do have in common, though, is that they contain the polymers called glucomannans. It is these polymers give the ice cream its entertaining stretchiness. Salep is believed to have several medicinal properties which makes eating ice cream in Turkey a necessity for many people. All Turkish ice cream is made with salep and the wild orchid is becoming so endangered it is illegal to export it. The decline is so great that environmentalists are now calling for a total ban on the use of salep in ice cream. However, some people from Turkey may be reluctant to give up salep, an alleged aphrodisiac. In fact, the word “salep” means “fox testicles,” apparently because of the way the orchid roots look. Harold Koopowitz, a retired ecology professor from the University of California at Irvine who is involved with multiple orchid societies, says that some people believe salep has medicinal properties. They make a hot drink with it in Turkey, he says, like the chicken soup made here in the United States.

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