Emirgan Sütiş

History of Desserts

History of Desserts

The words for “sweets” in all languages carry very positive meanings; they remind pleasure and happiness and they are identified with love and happiness. Main ingredient of desserts is always sugar.

In all culinary cultures in the history, Anatolian dessert making is considered a breakthrough in dessert making. The earliest residents of these lands are known as the pioneers of dessert making in the Western civilization.

Having a look at the culinary habits of Central Asian Turks, we cannot see many clues to dessert making. As it turns out, our ancestors were a stranger to the concept of dessert just like the Chinese. After the immigration to Anatolia, dessert making which is a well-established tradition on these lands was adopted in no time and this cultural heritage was looked after. During the Ottoman era, Turks almost assumed the role of merging the long-established dessert culture of the Middle East with the dessert culture of the peoples of the region reaching out to the central Europe.

Through Turks, culinary traditions of countless states were melted in the same pot; many Eastern and Western desserts reappeared in Istanbul, capital of the empire, in a more refined way.


When we are a baby, first food we become acquainted with is milk. Then, cow’s milk replaces breastmilk. Maybe this is the reason for the fact that earliest desserts in history are milk desserts.

The most known and loved dessert among our milk desserts is the rice pudding. Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk (Compendium of the languages of the Turks) mentions a dessert called ‘Uwa’. The recipe for this dessert is “Rice is cooked and then put into cold water; then the water is drained and sugar is added to the rice and it is eaten cold.”

Earliest mentions of rice pudding (sütlaç) is in the 15th century medical books and poems of Kaygusuz Abdal.

Being introduced to the Italian cuisine, rice pudding was presented as the third meal of a feast given by Pope V Pius in 1570, with description of “Turkish style rice with milk garnished with sugar and cinnamon”. Rice pudding was also a prestigious dessert which was served in the palaces in Turkey. Rice pudding was served in the banquet organized by the grand vizier for English ambassador Lord John Finch, after he appeared before Mehmet IV in Edirne Palace.

MILK PUDDING (Muhallebi)

Another delicacy which is as prominent as rice pudding, if not more, is milk pudding.

Milk pudding used to be prepared plain or with chicken breast (tavukgöğsü). Getting its name from a famous Abbasid aristocrat, milk pudding (muhallebi) was a dish prepared with meat, rice, honey and saffron. Then, it had become optional to add the meat. Mehmet the Conqueror liked tavukgöğsü type milk pudding more; so his milk pudding used to be made with chicken breast in addition to the milk and rice flour. There are two recipes in Ottoman Physician Şirvani’s book for milk pudding, one of which includes meat and the other one does not include any meat. Meatless version is put into plates after being prepared and then some butter, rose water and powdered sugar are added on top of the milk pudding.

Milk pudding was one of the favorite desserts which used to be made for holidays and ambassador visits in the palace. After a while, milk pudding started to be sold on the streets, recreation areas and in Turkish baths. Honey or molasses were drizzled over the street milk pudding, in addition to the rose water and powdered sugar. Western travelers really liked this different type of milk pudding made in Turkey, as it was similar to ‘blanc mange’ they were familiar to. There is a milk pudding recipe in an English cooking book written in the late 19th century called “Ramadan Cake”, which is described as a “Turkish Style” milk pudding with rose water or jasmine water on top.


First person to mention kazandibi milk pudding is Mahmud Nedim, with these words of him about the milk pudding makers: “They scrape the bottom of the pot in which the milk pudding and tavukgöğsü is cooked with help of a scraper and distribute the milk pudding on plates with the red side on top and they call this as the bottom of the cauldron”. Ahmed Cavid, author in Selim III era, says “Rice pilaf and other dishes that stick to the bottom of pots are delicious. They are not enjoyed by the owner of a property but they are chowed down by servants.” Milk pudding makers of Istanbul appreciated this dessert and they did not leave this dessert to servants. They introduced kazandibi, one of the most delicious desserts, to the Ottoman cuisine.