A bit of history in every sweet bite
Pastel de nata are the ultimate accompaniment to a tiny but mighty cup of Portuguese coffee. (Paul Bernhardt/LPI)
Travel is often about culinary indulgences, especially when it comes to something sweet. The following six cities have at least one signature dessert to try. Sample these confections for a bit of history in every bite.
Turkish delight in Istanbul
Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir was the most famous of all the Ottoman confectioners. He came to Istanbul from the mountain town of Kastamonu in 1777 and opened a shop in the Old City where he concocted delicious boiled sweets and the translucent jellied jewels known to Turks as lokum -- Turkish delight to the rest of the world. Today, locals still buy their lokum from branches of the business he began more than two centuries ago.
The flagship store of Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir is located near the Spice Bazaar. There are also stores on İstiklal Caddesi and in the produce market at Kadıköy. A more recent family dynasty has been established at Herşey Aşktan, opposite the Pera Palace Hotel. Its delicious Turkish delight can be packaged in decorative boxes, creating a perfect gift to take home to friends and family.
Cheesecake in New York
Cheesecake, in various forms, has been baked and eaten in Europe since the 1400s. But in the 1940s, Lindy's restaurant (825 Seventh Avenue and 401 Seventh Avenue) immortalized New York–style cheesecake — made of cream cheese, heavy cream, a dash of vanilla and a cookie crust. Junior's, which opened on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn in 1929 (and more recently in midtown) makes its own famous version of the creamy cake with a graham-cracker crust.
Gelato in Florence
There is a healthy rivalry among the local gelaterie artigianale (makers of handmade gelato), who all strive to create the creamiest, most flavourful and freshest product in the city. Flavours change according to what fruit is in season.
Three of our favourites are Gelateria dei Neri (served semifreddo-style; it is cheaper than its competitors and has wild flavours such as gorgonzola); Gelateria Vivoli (served in tubs only, and you can eat in the pretty piazza nearby); and Grom (a newcomer using many organic ingredients). You will usually be asked if you want panna (cream) with your ice cream. A good call is si.
Gula melaka in Melaka
Made from sago, palm sugar and coconut milk, this traditional dessert is rarely served outside of the Malaysian home. While gula melaka refers to palm sugar, it plays such an intrinsic part in this popular sweet that the dessert is commonly known by that name, although you may also see it called Sago Gula Melaka. You may find it on the menu of a few Malaysian restaurants, particularly in Melaka, or you can try mastering it yourself by following this recipe.
Brussels waffles in Ghent
A sure-fire way to tell natives from tourists is how they order waffles. Locals never consume these sweet snacks with whipped cream, chocolate or other elaborate toppings (except sometimes fruit). Instead, a Brussels waffle – a large, light rectangle with 20 “squares”, usually eaten in tearooms and brasseries – is traditionally buttered and sprinkled only with icing sugar.
Etablissement Max is an elegant brasserie run by Yves Van Maldeghem, whose entrepreneurial family started out with a mobile waffle stall at a fair. Yves bakes waffles using his family's 120-year-old waffle irons, and also makes pancakes and sizzling apple fritters.
Pastel de nata in Lisbon
Portugal's history-laden sweets industry was crystallised when the Arabs introduced sugar to the country. In medieval times, enterprising nuns and monks made and sold doces conventuais (literally, convent sweets), of which the best known is the pastel de nata, a creamy, egg-based custard tart. The story goes that nuns stiffened their habits with egg whites and devised special recipes to consume the leftover yolks. Since 1837, Lisbon patisserie Antiga Confeitaria de Belém has been transporting locals to sugarcoated nirvana with heavenly pastéis de belém: crisp pastry nests filled with custard cream, baked at 200C for that perfect golden crust, then lightly dusted with cinnamon.