Whether you are a visiting foreigner or a seasoned expat, there are a number of unique gifts that can only be purchased from Turkey that may interest you, especially as the Qurban Bayram, Turkey’s longest holiday, which is also referred to as Eid al-Adha in the greater Muslim world, will be upon us next week. There may be a greater emphasis placed on gift-giving this year as the normal traditions of paying visits to family and friends will be kept shorter and curtailed as much as possible in light of the pandemic. As for tourists, these are a number of special and useful souvenirs that you can only bring home from Turkey and make for the perfect gifts.
As the saying goes, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and this sentiment couldn’t ring any truer at any other time in our lives. Not only are we paying diligent care to cleanliness, but we are also in the height of summer and so all things water and health care-related are extremely relevant right now. Luckily, Turkey has a number of unique and spectacular bathing items starting with the natural sponge, referred to as “sünger” (or deniz süngeri), which can be used to scrub your body and face and can be purchased from any “aktar,” which are shops that exclusively sell herbs and spices. These sturdy and soft sponges are harvested by sponge divers along Turkey’s Aegean coast.
The simple bar of soap has never seen such demand as it has in the time of the coronavirus. Luckily, there are a wide variety of natural and healing soaps that are regularly available throughout Turkey and make for an excellent simple souvenir or gift. Made from olive oil and fortified with flowers, nuts and fruits for different healing properties, the soaps in Turkey are special, and many are handmade. There are apricot soaps for the face and pistachio (bıttım) soap for the hair, which stand out as being the most popular and authentic variations.
Thicker than a sarong, thinner than a towel, the “peştamel” fabric covering, which is traditionally made of cotton and dyed in striped designs of light pastel colors, is the perfect gift for yourself or others this summer as it can be worn as a covering or simply used as a chic towel or spread. They are regularly available in tourist spots, the Grand Bazaar and in specialty shops such as Jennifer’s Hamam in the Arasta Bazaar. Şile Bezi is another thin cotton fabric that can be worn as a sarong, or a light summer dress, or can also be used as a table cloth and even as a sheet or bed cover. Hailing from the Istanbul suburb of Şile, every Sunday there is the “Şile Yeryüzü Pazar,” which is a farmer’s market with local products including the region’s Şile bezi.
There is no time better than now to learn the intricacies of the game of backgammon, a highly entertaining and competitive board game that has been played in the region for 5,000 years and is an integral part of Turkish culture. Backgammon, aka “tavla,” is a great way to while away the day with a friend, and it always makes for a beautiful gift, especially in Turkey, where they are made of wood and decorated with mother of pearl inlay. While backgammon sets are regularly available in tourist shops, the locals tend to head to Tahtakale, Istanbul’s wholesale district which has streets lined with shops selling a variety of games including backgammon.
Over the past few decades, Turkey has created a vast array of colorful and authentic handmade lighting options that are impressive and each one-of-a-kind. Any trip to the Grand Bazaar will leave you in a daze from the kaleidoscope of colors reflected by the lamps that you will inevitably feel you absolutely need to light up your life. The more traditional forms of lighting are brass chandelier-like bulbs that are decorated with colorful cutouts. In recent years, these more basic brass chandeliers have been overtaken by spectacular glass mosaic lamps in a chandelier or tabletop form that truly reflect a kaleidoscope of colors. There are also colorful gourd lamps that are decorated with cutouts filled with colorful glass. The gourd lamps are more widely available in southern Turkey, whereas the other varieties can be found in the Grand Bazaar and tourist shops all over the country.
While Turkey may be synonymous with Turkish delight and baklava, there are actually a wide variety of authentic Turkish candies to satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. Let’s start with Turkish delight. Traditionally made from a gel of starch and sugar formed into small cubes and generally sold in rose, mint and orange flavors, there is actually a whole world of “lokum” the layman might be less familiar with. Look deeper and you will find logs of lokum made from nuts, pomegranate, clotted cream or coffee and even dipped in chocolate.
Do not mistake Turkish delight for “Cezerye.” The latter is a healthier treat composed of caramelized carrots, shredded coconut and nuts and shaped into thin sheets or cubes similar to lokum. Another similar doppelganger to the logs of lokum is ”sucuk,” which admittedly is the name for Turkey’s spicy sausage, but in the case of sweet treats, refers to a log of walnuts in an encasing made of grape molasses.
Marzipan is a treat made from almond meal that was said to have been introduced to Europe by the Turks, who refer to the candy as “badem ezmesi.” Peruse the candy shops in the heart of Kadıköy such as Cafer Erol or Hacı Bekir, to see this paste turned into an art form as they are carved in the shapes of the fruits they are flavored with. The little candy sculptures also make great gifts.