Friedrich Unger was the chef and confectioner for Otto I, the first king of modern Greece. In 1837, after five years of research and travels in the Middle East, Unger published a monumental book about his impressions of the confections he encountered. An important chapter in Unger’s book – which was rescued from oblivion by the historian and food researcher Priscilla Mary Isin, and republished in 2003 with the title “A King’s Confectioner in the Orient” – is devoted to sherbet: nonalcoholic beverages made from spiced fruits conserved in sugar, which are mixed with water and served with ice. Sherbets also became popular in Europe. Indeed, the European nobility was captivated by all things oriental, whether coffee, Turkish delight or sherbet – and in his book Unger describes dozens of sherbets that were popular in 19th-century Istanbul.
Sherbet is of course not an Ottoman invention. The source of the word, whose meaning varies depending on the historical era and the place, lies in the Arabic shrab, referring to syrup or a sweetened drink. Sherbets were traditionally an integral element in the Central Asian kitchen and in the magnificent Arab cuisine of the Middle Ages. But in the capital of the Ottoman Empire about two centuries ago, in a wealthy society of people who abstained from alcoholic beverages, the guild of confectioners elevated the creation of sherbet into an art.
In order to make sherbets available throughout the year, and not only during the brief seasons when their ingredients – fresh fruits, and also seeds and flowers – could be found, confectioners created syrups, purees and concentrated instant tablets. Such tablets, which have all but disappeared from the contemporary world, were made by cooking sugar seasoned with fruit juices and oils and spices, pouring the resulting syrup into molds until it recrystallized and hardened, and cutting the pieces into diamond shapes.
Among the sherbet tablets mentioned by Unger – how wonderful it would be to sample some of those drinks, whose ingredients alone spark a thirst for their taste and indeed for the taste of the world that disappeared with them! – are pistachio sherbet (to bring out the green color, a little spinach juice was added) and other varieties made with almonds, cinnamon, vanilla, orchid tubers, violets, unripe grapes, sour cherries, plums, apricots, pineapple, chocolate, and also lemon and orange sherbets seasoned with rosewater or citrus blossoms, which were among the most popular types.
Unger documented the dizzying selection of sherbets that were prepared from natural raw ingredients just before they began to vanish from the world, and were replaced with artificial concentrates and products manufactured by the soft drink and carbonated beverage industries. In the second half of the 1800s, as Isin writes, recipes for “Persian sherbet” or “Turkish sherbet” began to appear in publications in Europe and the United States, whose ingredients included baking soda, cream of tartar and artificial fruit extracts in which the proportion of natural fruit was very low.
Sugar-rich, thirst-slaking and soul- and body-reviving sherbets were also an integral part of the tradition of breaking the Yom Kippur fast in Jewish communities.
“The traditional Yom Kippur sherbet is based on khakshir seeds [from flixweed or Descurainia sophia, a plant from the Brassicaceae family, which includes mustards and crucifers] and basil seeds, which grew in the garden, and the seeds are boiled with sugar and rosewater,” says Miri Kurt, whose origins are in the Afghan Jewish community and who collected her mother’s recipes in her self-published cookbook. Chef Ayelet Latovich, who is from a Persian-Jewish family, remembers the chilled, sweet falooda that was drunk after Yom Kippur ended – made of sweet rosewater syrup and served with super-thin strands of apple, called “hairs.”
In Sephardi communities – in Jerusalem, Greece and other places where the Jews expelled from 15th-century Spain settled – the favored drink was pepitada, a sherbet based on melon or pumpkin seeds. The 1985 cookbook “Delights of Jerusalem,” by Rina Valero, contains a recipe for pepitada (“a mixture used after the Yom Kippur fast... [made from] seeds collected throughout the melon season, rinsed, dried and ground”), then soaked in sugar water, with rosewater added, for what Valero called lemon squash.
“I am from the generation that knew ‘Zip’ instant-drink powder,” says chef Noa Levi, referring to a 1980s product used with water in making fruit-flavored beverages. “But I also remember from childhood that in the space under the kitchen sink there was always natural lemon or apple concentrate that my mom prepared herself.”
For the past two years, Levi, formerly the chef of Joz ve Loz restaurant in Tel Aviv and afterward of the San Remo restaurants group, has been producing and selling various pickled, fermented and soured foods prepared according to traditional methods.
“A month before the outbreak of the pandemic I was still trying decide whether to become a partner in the group, despite the tiring and demanding work of dealing with personnel management there,” she tells Haaretz. “And then came the coronavirus, the restaurants shut down, and the body and soul finally had time to figure out what I really wanted to do.”
Today on the shelves of Levi’s kitchen – even the guilds of cooks and confectioners in old Istanbul would envy the jars of spices and the astonishing selection of fruit and vegetable conserves she has – there are all kinds of syrups that can be used in concocting refreshing beverages: grape and sumac, fresh raspberry and syrups made from unripe plums and curry leaves, preserved with organic brown sugar. “The truth is that it’s not clear why we don’t prepare these sorts of concentrates anymore,” she says, “because it’s amazingly simple: You mix sugar into the fruit juice and leave it for a few days and then add vinegar. Besides, there are always leftover fruits at home that have spoiled, or fruits from nearby trees that no one is using.”
The packages of syrups Levi is selling for the Jewish holiday season include four types that can be added to spruce up cocktails and other alcoholic beverages when mixed with water and ice: an almond syrup made with regular, bitter almonds and apricot kernels; syrup of hibiscus and Persian lemon; syrup from herbs abundantly spiced with ginger and lemon; and masala chai syrup. The packages also include different salsas (such as a marvelous one of fermented green tomatoes); jams; and, the crowning glory, superb spicy sauces, based on such fruits as strawberry or mango or apples in honey – which are unbeatable additions to meat, fish and grilled or fresh vegetable dishes.
instagram.com/doa_levi; phone: 052-5242535
A paradise of frozen pleasures
I doubt I will ever get to taste the sort of pistachio sherbet served in the Turkish sultan’s palace, but the pistachio ice cream of Paradiso del Gelato – airy in consistency; velvety and rich with the flavor of the tasty green nut – evokes an imagined or real paradise of frozen delight.
Paradiso del Gelato is an artisanal Italian ice cream parlor in the Bezalel market in central Tel Aviv under the proprietorship of Altea and Alberto Soued, Milan-born siblings who immigrated to Israel three years ago. Alberto is in charge of the manufacturing end, in the rear of the store, and Althea is usually behind the counter and in front of colorful stainless-steel containers filled with ice cream, sorbet and granita.
There isn’t yet a huge line outside the lovely shop, with its decor in shades of chocolate brown and pistachio green – but there should be, not only because of the pistachio ice cream, but also because of the equally wonderful flavor made with pistachio combined with yogurt and apricot jam (which could be served as is, as dessert in a chef’s restaurant), and the marvelous pine nut sweet-salty ice cream. The list of delights, some of them vegan, continues with lemon or watermelon granita – the coolness of the ice chips reminds one even today why people fell in love with frozen desserts – strawberry and peach sorbet, and superb gelati of cassata siciliani and bitter chocolate.
Paradiso del Gelato, 3 Beit Lehem Street, Tel Aviv; phone: 053-7311909