Turkish cuisine is rich with syrupy desserts, sometimes cloyingly sweet for foreign palates. However, there is a great, often-neglected option in the Turkish sweet world: milk puddings, which are a key part of Ottoman culinary heritage.

AMilk puddings are a great way to satisfy the sweet tooth without too much guilt. Based on milk, and made without eggs or whipped cream, they are almost diet desserts—especially when little sugar is used. They are light and pleasant, cool and soothing, approachable and uncomplicated, yet surprisingly sophisticated if prepared with care—with names matching their self-confident, straightforward approaches.

The pudding shop: the ultimate meeting point

The muhallebici (pudding shop) is a Turkish phenomenon. The name is derived from the milky pudding muhallebi, which in Ottoman times was made with shredded chicken meat and thickened with rice flour. It was typically scooped out of a large tray by street vendors and served in dainty saucers sprinkled with sugar and rose water.

The muhallebici developed into shops selling a range of puddings, and sometimes also making chicken soup, and chicken and rice from leftover pudding ingredients. Inevitably, the inclusion of chicken and rice made the pudding shops more like eateries; although they were more casual than typical restaurants, with a walk in and out approach, so pudding shops became perfect venues for secret dates.

One particular establishment in Sultanahmet known as ‘The Pudding Shop’ took a dramatic turn from this, and became a meeting point for beatniks and hippies in the 1960s and 70s, most of whom were embarking on the hitchhiking trail to India and Nepal.

The owner had put-up a notice board for the wandering tourists, and—in this pre-internet, pre-mobile era—messages said things like: “meet you here in three months,” or “the yellow bus is leaving for Delhi on Tuesday.” A international meeting place developed, love stories started and ended there. While the hippie trail is no more, locals and tourists still pop in for their fix of soup or pudding.

What to try: types of milk pudding

Muhallebi

The archetypal basic milk pudding is muhallebi. The word likely means “made from milk,” as “halab” is “milk” in Hebrew and Arabic. The modern dessert is simply milk, sugar, and starch, cooked to a creamy consistency. The only added flavorings tend to be mastic, a gum resin obtained from the wild pistachio tree which gives an intriguing chewy aroma, or simply a sprinkling of cinnamon.

A denser, jelly-like version called su muhallebisi (water pudding) is sometimes made from diluted milk and cut into squares and served dusted with powdered sugar and a good splash of rose water.

Sütlaç

The name of the most popular milk pudding derives from “sütlü aş” (“milk food”), which was eventually rolled into one word. Sütlaç is especially appealing when baked to form a slightly burnt leathery skin topping the runnier creamy pudding underneath. It has the soothing, humble taste of milk, sugar, and rice (although mastic is sometimes added for a more sophisticated version). This triumphant trio may have influenced other rice-based sweets in Europe as it made its way to festive banquets in Italy during the Renaissance period as Riso Turchesco, Turkish rice.

Keşkül

Keşkül was the begging bowl of wandering dervishes in which they collected donations and a mix of foodstuffs given as alms, inspiring the pudding’s name. Today the pudding usually only features almonds, but original recipes include a richer mix of nuts from pistachios to pine nuts, almonds to slivers of coconut, infused in milk and thickened with ground rice. Dervishes surely could collect a great deal of food with the original begging bowls, which were made of coco-de-mer, the world’s biggest nut.

Güllaç

The queen of all milk puddings is reserved for Ramadan, when it is officially güllaç time. The name derives from “güllü aş”, “food with roses”. The technique to make güllaç differs a little from other milky puddings; the milk is not thickened with starch or ground rice, but simply sweetened, flavored with rose water, and soaked up by layers of super-thin, almost translucent papery starch wafers which swell to form a layered pudding with a nutty layer, usually of ground walnuts.

Paper-thin brittle güllaç leaves are fairly similar to spring rolls in Asian cuisines, but used in a totally different way, resulting in the most delectable rosy and milky pudding.

Güllaç

Tavuk göğsü – Kazandibi

Tavuk göğsü (“chicken breast”) surely stands out among all milk puddings. Like its medieval European relative blancmange, many early milk puddings were made with chicken meat. Fatih the Conqueror always had his muhallebi made with chicken.

To make tavuk göğsü, cooked chicken breast is pulled and pounded to break into the mass of muscle fibers and added to the milk pudding thickened with pounded rice. The chicken provides an almost chewy consistency and a richness to the pudding.

Strange as it may seem, it is almost impossible to detect the taste of chicken; many foreign food experts fail the taste test, especially when the pan-roasted variety kazandibi is served, which simply means “bottom of the cauldron.”

In this version the pudding is poured into metal pans or trays to set, and the tray is set on fire to scorch the bottom of the pudding, which is then left to cool. The pudding is then cut into squares, and flipped and rolled over to leave the burnt bottom on top. The caramelized sugar combined with the burnt casein in the milk and the protein in the chicken creates a haunting, complex flavor.

Where to try them: best muhallebici in Istanbul

  • Zeynel Muhallebicisi: This chain has a history nearly as long as the Republic itself, dating back to 1925, when Zeynel Usta(a immigrant from Yugoslavia)used to sell ice creams from his boat to the wealthy yalı (wooden mansion) owners along the Bosphorus. Akkavak Sokak No.11, Teşvikiye; T: (0212) 296 66 26 or Köybaşı Caddesi No.167, Yeniköy; T: (0212) 262 89 87
  • Tarihi Sarıyer Muhallebicisi: Open since 1928, this is a Sarıyer classic – a neighborhoodrestaurant that serves the highest-quality Turkish desserts as well as a wide selection ofbörek (filled savory pastries). Inthe summer, they put out tables where you can sit for the perfect tea break of muhallebi and çay. Yenimahalle Cad.No.23, Sarıyer; T: (0212) 242 17 76. Other locations in Bahçeköy and Zekeriyaköy
  • Özkonak: Özkonak, in Cihangir, was founded in 1962 and, like many muhallebicisi, Özkonak now also serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Located in the heart of one of the most gentrified and bohemian neighborhoods, it resolutely refuses to modernize, and for that we love it even more. Akarsu Yokuşu Caddesi No.46/B, Cihangir; T: (0212) 249 13 07
  • Karaköy Özsüt: Haci Hasan Fehmi Özsüt used to serve up scrumptious puddings in Karaköy since 1915, and now it moved to İstiklal Caddesi and is known as Karaköy Özsüt. The photos of the buffalos that adorn the wall give a clue to the secret of their delicious dairy desserts. İstiklal Caddesi No.261; T: 0535 608 87 05
  • Göreme Muhallebicisi: This tiny local chain established in 1965 is frequented by retirees in the mornings, but by the evening everyone comes in to have a taste of the shop’s lovely puddings to eat in or take away. This is a family business that prides itself on using the freshest ingredients and recipes, unchanged for decades. Kurtuluş Caddesi No.60, Kurtuluş; T: (0212) 232 71 43
  • Saray Muhallebicisi: Saray has been serving up traditional tastes since 1935, and although it specializes in desserts (including baklava, ayva tatlısı [quince-dessert], and profiteroles, alongside milk puddings), it also serves savory soups, kebabs, rice dishes, and more. İstiklal Caddesi No.107, Beyoğlu; T: (0212) 999 28 88; and many more branches around the city.