A weeklong series dedicated to exploring everything that’s happening in the world of ice cream right now.
Ice cream is many things: Cooling, sweet, quite possibly the most delicious thing ever invented. But it is not usually stretchy. At least not in the U.S. In Turkey, however, ice-cream vendors can pull, stretch, and toss their ice cream like a Jersey Shore show-off playing games with taffy. New York is filled with all sorts of amazing ice-cream creations, but until now, this stretchy Turkish ice cream known as dondurma has been extremely difficult — almost impossible, really — to find Stateside. That’s all about to change, though: Lezzetli Mediterranean Ice Cream is the first American brand of what its owners call “chewy ice cream.”
The full name for this ice cream is Maraş dondurma, for the city it purportedly comes from, and it belongs to a family of chewy, dense ice creams also found in the Eastern Mediterranean. These sweets get their characteristic qualities from plant-derived ingredients. Salep, the ground-up tuber of an orchid, thickens it, while mastic or gum arabic lends it elastically and a higher melting point to help withstand the blistering Mediterranean sun. All varieties are worked with mallets or paddles during the freezing process, and getting that trademark elasticity means putting in work. It’s also very dense to the point of almost being tough. True to the owners’ claims, you can actually chew it, and it has a hint of savoriness and a piney flavor from the resinous mastic.
Dondurma is still exceedingly rare in the U.S. The few places that do make it include Bay Ridge’s Cedars Pastry and Las Vegas’s Marash, which has expanded into California. Why this is the case isn’t exactly clear, but Robyn Eckhardt — the author of the EatingAsia blog and the forthcoming Istanbul and Beyond — thinks it probably has to do with the labor involved, and that Maraş-dondurma producers tend to be specialists.
Now, though, Lezzetli is poised to be a gateway drug into the world of chewy ice cream. Turkey has banned salep exports, so this version is thickened with konjac flour, as well as guar gum, vegetable glycerin, carrageenan gum, and locust-bean gum. As a result, co-owner Roberto Escobar is quick to qualify that their ice cream, which he says he worked on for two years, isn’t exactly dondurma.
“We wanted to re-create the experience of chewy, textured ice cream found in Turkey and the Levant. It’s kind of a meld of all of them,” he says. “We make more of a creamier version of it, while still having some of that chewiness, without it being as chewy and tough as the traditional one.”
The most traditional of the five flavors is the Mastiha, flavored pungently with Chios mastic oil. If you’re having trouble imagining what that tastes like, think of something that’s lightly aromatic like pistachio ice cream with some pleasant evergreen. The other flavors are Chios vanilla, named for the Greek island with its own DOP mastic and with a gentler dose of that mastic oil; chocolate that’s flavored with orange blossom; spiced date that is not unlike a grown-up Pumpkin Spice; and a tart cherry that would make a good pie filling.
Here is how you get some: After debuting in a few New York grocery stores like Kalustyan’s, Zabar’s, and Brooklyn Harvest earlier this year, Lezzetli has introduced nationwide shipping via Goldbely and Sweetist. Escobar says they plan to expand retail beyond the tristate within the year, but that they’re not ready to divulge their full plans just yet.
The question is whether Americans will, broadly speaking, be into taffy texture in their ice-cream pints. Lezzetli’s version might not be as chewy or elastic as true Maraş dondurma, but its texture and lightly savory taste can still seem unusual for unacquainted palates. (A couple New York staffers were confused, possibly expecting candyless Ben & Jerry’s.) It’s still dense, can be folded, and a spoonful will — Grub did the hard work of fact-checking this — sit on your tongue for a full minute before totally melting. That’s one of the primary appeals of dondurma: that you really get to savor it for longer. Which may be a convincing enough argument for ice-cream-obsessed Americans.