The smell of roasted almonds, pistachios and peanuts fills the air on one of the streets off the main square in Gaza City. Al-Fawakheir Street is known for its old shops, where traditional handcrafts such as pottery are still practiced in shops with clay ovens, gas cookers and old furniture.
The source of the smell is a confectionery factory that makes “rahat lokum” — or “rahat al-hulqum” in Turkish — which is translated as "the ease of the throat.” The sweet is referred to as “lokum” or “halkoum," better known in English as Turkish delight.
Even though the confectionery machines of the factory are old, it is the main lokum supplier in the Gaza Strip, particularly at times when the demand for the sweets made of sugar, starch and nuts increases before Islamic and Christian holidays, as well as large weddings and family events. Lokum, offered with coffee, is a gesture of hospitality toward visitors.
Mohammed Sawan, the owner of the lokum confectionery factory, told Al-Monitor that his factory is over a hundred years old. “Back in 1870, the factory was opened by the Sawan family in the city of Jaffa, which is historically known for exporting this type of candy throughout the region, from the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon in Syria to northern Sinai,” he said.
Sawan said he moved his factory from Jaffa to Gaza City after the Arab-Israeli war and the occupation of Palestine in 1948, adding, “All of the factory’s equipment and all of the tools — which are still in use today to produce lokum — were brought here. The move made no difference in the taste of our lokum, as we trained the new workers in the exact skills of making it in the traditional way.”
There are many theories on the origins of lokum. Some historians trace its roots to the Persian court, while others claim it was first made in Istanbul to bring some sweetness to the sultans’ tables. In any case, it came to the Middle East through the Ottoman Empire, more or less at the same time that the Ottomans started building the first railways to their eastern provinces. Many gastronomy historians believe that Egypt was the first Arab country to learn the skill of making lokum from the Ottomans. The mix of flour, sweets and nuts then made its way to Palestine, and the Palestinians started exporting it to neighboring countries. Subsequently, lokum was produced in the Hauran region of Syria.
Sawan claims his factory is the oldest of its kind in the Arab world, and that the basic equipment has not changed for over a century. The factory is run by the Sawan family, and the skills have been passed on from one generation to the next.
Mohamed Ramadan, who has worked in the factory for 34 years, told Al-Monitor how lokum is made. “Boiling water is mixed with sugar and citric acid in large pots and the mixture is stirred until the sugar is dissolved," he said. "Starch — the main ingredient — is then added to the mix. The final mix is poured into separate smaller pots of different shapes and sizes, each containing different types of nuts such as pistachios, peanuts or almonds. Then we add different flavors such as rose water, strawberries or oranges.”
In addition to lokum, other types of sweets are made in the factory, such as dragees, honey confection (asaliya), Malban (Lebanese sweets), pistachio and coconut bars, Persian nougat, sesame seed candy and colored licorice.
These are all made in the same way as lokum, but after boiling the water and sugar different ingredients are added and the cooking method differs.
Ramadan explained that the deterioration of the economic situation in the country and the closure of crossings and borders, in addition to the acute electricity crisis, has prevented the export of lokum to the cities of the West Bank, such as Jerusalem, Hebron and Ramallah, as well as to northern Sinai since the mid-1990s. He added, “This has curtailed the production of lokum. This sweet, however, is still sold in large quantities in shops and market stands in the Gaza Strip on the occasion of various national, Islamic and Christian festivities."
Mohammad al-Azab, one of the most famous lokum traders in al-Zawiya market — the oldest in Gaza City — told Al-Monitor, “The demand for halkoum rises during winter and holidays. Some people call it the winter sweet. In the summer the turnout of customers is very low, except during some holidays or festivities when 70% of the confectionery we sell are the various types of lokum.”
Lokum is also used as stuffing in cookies. Pastry chef Fayza Abu Obeid told Al-Monitor that she makes two types of stuffed cookies: with date paste or halkoum paste. She also uses these two stuffings when making mamoul (a semolina cookie filled with dates, pistachios or walnuts), croissants and the Omani sweets called Omania. Add to this a cup of coffee and a strong feeling of hospitality.