The first time I felt really, truly betrayed was not when I discovered that that my parents were not always right, or that the fact that my cat had been put to sleep did not mean that she had gone to take an extended nap; it was when I read The Chronicles of Narnia. I actually read Narnia in a wardrobe. It was Thanksgiving at my (paternal) grandmother’s house, and my brother and I were hiding. I was scared of my paternal grandmother. She was hunched over, very thin, and spoke Mandarin with a sinister lisp, and she fought with my father, my uncle, and my grandfather constantly. Because she was also diabetic, she was on dialysis, and while I realize that this is going to sound extremely intolerant, it was very frightening for me, as a small child, to go to my lisping, wizened grandmother and chat with her in her bedroom that smelled slightly strange, while she pumped a plastic bag full of fluid through her body.
My paternal grandmother lived in California. The sun was shining, the citrus fruits were ripening on the trees, the swimming pool was beckoning, and my brother and I were clamped down in the closet in the spare bedroom, reading from a box of books. My father was furious. But Narnia got me through that holiday, and it helped that I believed firmly that my paternal grandmother was an evil dwarf. Then, after reading seven rip-roaring adventures, I discovered that Narnia was all about God. In fact, I read The Last Battle over again, just to make sure I had understood the message. Also, Aslan the lion was not a very nice God, either. He was going to send Susan to hell because she was interested in lipstick and boys.
I got over the God thing, eventually. What I never got over was Turkish Delight.
In the first book of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children go into a closet and find themselves in an enchanted snowy land. Only one of the boys, Edmund, is waylaid by a character called the White Witch, who feeds him a candy called Turkish Delight, and Edmund falls under her spell.
At this point, I will add that Narnia is a very appetizing read, and in aforethought, Lewis was probably very clever because some of his descriptions have gotten his readers (myself included) to try good-for-you dishes that they would have never under other circumstances. Specifically, the first meal that he describes involves sardines on toast and a boiled egg. Sardines on toast is rapidly followed by trout pan-fried in butter, and while my mouth can still water over that description, I remain, firmly, not a trout fan, although I resolutely munched my way through several, especially when pulled fresh from a stream.
But back to Turkish Delight. Turkish Delight, per Lewis, is, quite simply, the best candy in the world. Even as a child, I did not have much of a sweet tooth, and I read my way through many books stuffed with chocolates and caramels without batting an eyelash. However, there was something about Turkish Delight that mesmerized me.
It starts simply enough:
“…there appeared a round box, tied with green, silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.”
The candy turns Edmund, who was always my favorite character, into a salivating pawn, giving a whole new meaning to how one should worm a way into a boy’s heart. Until finally:
“At last, the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen [Witch] knew quite well what he was thinking for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.”
I spent a lot of time imagining what it must taste like – this food that you would cram down your throat until you died. Later I would find out that there were other things in life that could produce a very similar effect, but I was an innocent eight years old, and gluttony was the only sin of which I had knowledge. However, it was something I knew very intimately indeed. I had come close to killing myself from over-eating when I was a child; once it was with meat pie, another time with a chicken that had been gratineed with mushrooms and Swiss cheese, and the agony, post-gratineed chicken, was so terrible that I could not face Swiss cheese for another ten years. But they were both savory dishes. Turkish Delight was different. It was magic, granted bad magic, but cerebral all the same. There is something pure about candy (this coming from someone who didn’t like sweets); you might die from it, but you would never get anything so banal as a stomachache. I lived in Connecticut in the 1980s where Turkish Delight was hard to come by, so for years I carried around, in the back of my mouth, this tantalizing notion of this one perfect sweet. Anything, after that, would be a letdown.
There are many people in the world who love Turkish Delight. Presumably they all grew up in the Middle East or 1940s England, and when they read that chapter, they imagine that insipid soapy flavor, and close their eyes in delight. Me, I am not a Turkish Delight lover – otherwise I would be going next door to the Fallon & Byrne right now, where they carry a very good version (so I am told) that is flavored with rose-water and pistachio. Turkish Delight is not the most horrible thing that I have ever tasted, but maybe, for me, the insipidness of the stuff makes it even worse. In any case, I cannot communicate the disappointment that I felt when I, at twelve, tasted my first piece – I don’t even remember how I got my hands on it, I just recall the sinking sensation that followed – except to say that the experience of eating Turkish Delight helped me get over the my shock at discovering Narnia’s Christian message, because it made me realize that anyone who could concoct such a lie about a piece of candy could never, ever be trusted. In other words, C.S. Lewis basically tells us that he’s a big fat liar at the very beginning of Narnia, so I couldn’t blame him for the God thing at the end.
It’s a good conversation starter. Walk up to a stranger, bring up Narnia, and then ask them about Turkish Delight. You will get a number of impassioned responses. Turkish Delight is like an Achilles heel or a White Whale, different for every individual, the thing that makes them go watery at the knees, and therefore a revealing glimpse into a person’s soul.
Turkish Delight has been described to me as chocolate, fudgy, cakey, like a Madeline, crumbly, like caramel, like a Sour Baby but better, like marzipan. My personal Turkish Delight is sticky and as white as snow. Visually, I picture the spun sugar confections that I see old men make outside, from carts, in Chinatown. For some reason my memory of watching them make this is always in the wintertime, when the steam of the boiling sugar combines with their exhalations to form warm white plumes. However, my Turkish Delight tastes, very definitely, like peanut mochi rolled in coconut.
Mochi is a Japanese cake made of glutinous rice. I don’t know a single non-Asian person who likes glutinous rice. I love it. I love the floppy squares of glutinous steamed rice (tian gao), sticky rice balls rolled in sesame and deep fried, or slabs of the New Years rice cake, dipped into egg, and pan seared on either side. I even love the Chinese word for sweet-and-sticky that comes from rice, nian, a wonderful word because the syllable feels like glue in the top of your mouth. But my favorite of all these is mochi.
My friend Masato brings me mochi that his uncle makes by hand from his little shop at the foot of Mount Fuji delicately flavored with orange blossoms, rose water, and green tea. My current favorite mochi are the ones at the Japonais bakery in Brookline, Massachusetts — fresh and plump like pillows, and when you bite into them, they spill forth with strawberries, and if you buy them at the right time in the morning, they are still warm. But let’s face it, the flavor of my Turkish Delight mochi are the mochi from my childhood, that we would buy in plastic packages in New York’s Chinatown. Oddly, Chinatown mochi are somewhat akin to Lewis’s Turkish Delight, for while Chinese sweets are not magic, per se, they’re certainly not natural. My next-door Asian market on Drury Street, which has an eye-opening array of mochi, even then peanut kind, which I prefer to the ones with red bean paste. There are individually wrapped ones for three Euros coated in black sesame, (these I’m guessing may actually be made by Japanese people), and a shelf devoted to pretty prepackaged ones from Taiwan in wooden boxes. Finally I find what I am looking for, and they are exactly how I remember them, next to the Chinese swiss rolls and egg tarts; little dimpled soft pinches, surfaces feathery with coconut, nestled snug in a plastic tray, with a pink and pale green wrapping printed with cherry trees and a pagoda. Their whiteness is dazzling and when I put it on my tongue, it melts – part cake, part candy, part jelly. It tastes like snow, sugar, a little like whipped cream, with a whiff of lychee, and for the first time in years, I am channeling Edmund on that freezing day. On the label, my mochi reads, “May have an adverse effect on the attention and activity of children.”
Recipe: Peanut Mochi