literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Ian McDonald's "The Dervish House" & Turkish Donuts In Honey Syrup

A stork rides the thermals in the early morning air above Istanbul during a heatwave. As the city “wakes with a shout,” the bird glides over a symphony of traffic jams, ship engines, air conditioners and gull cries. But this familiar song is broken with an explosion on a tram, and the only victim is the suicide bomber herself. That’s how it initially seems, anyway.  

Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House begins with a bang and we’re introduced to a kaleidoscope of characters whose stories contract and expand around an ancient dervish house. The novel is set in the near future — Turkey has just joined the European Union and the use of nanotechnology is commonplace. We meet Necdet, who was on the tram when the explosion occurred and shortly after begins to have visions of djinns and saints. 

Then there’s Lelya, who misses a job interview due to the bomb and reluctantly takes a job at a relative’s nanoware start-up instead. Her search for funding leads her to a financial institution where Adnan, a commodities trader, is plotting a major fraud scheme. Adnan’s girlfriend Ayse is a religious artifacts dealer who’s commissioned to find the fabled Mellified Man — a man mummified in honey. 

As the connections between the characters slowly reveal themselves, so too does the connection between nanotechnology and religious fervor. It’s a relationship that echoes the cultural identity of Turkey itself, caught between progress and history. On the surface, The Dervish House is science fiction. But Ayse’s search for the Mellified Man takes us on a detailed journey through Istanbul’s past, from the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman conquest. 


What follows is a recipe for Turkish lokma, a deep-fried donut doused in honey syrup. It’s a common street food in Istanbul that dates back to the Ottoman Empire and is a nod to the Mellified Man. In the novel, McDonald describes the process a dying man must go through before becoming encased in honey. Consuming nothing but honey for days, it “permeates every vessel” of his body, “swaddles” his organs and “drips in oozing globules” through his brain. Perhaps eating lokma is the closest we’ll get to "swimming in golden sugar hallucinations."



For the syrup:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 tbsp honey

For the donuts:

  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 tbsp instant dry yeast
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 egg
  • vegetable oil


Start by making the honey syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a small pot and bring to a slow boil. Allow the mixture to boil for 10 minutes. Once the syrup has thickened slightly, stir in the honey and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. 

For the donuts, combine the water, yeast and sugar in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, sift the flour and salt together. Add the yeast mixture and beat with an electrical mixer until smooth. Add the egg and beat until combined. The consistency should be a bit thicker and stickier than cake batter. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and allow it to rise for 1 hour. 

To fry the donuts, it’s best to use a thermometer or a deep-fryer with a basket and temperature gauge. Keep the cold syrup nearby, as well as a small bowl with oil and a spoon. Heat at least 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees.

Though a bit messy, this method works best for forming the donuts. Grab a handful of dough, squeeze a small ball through your thumb and forefinger, and use an oiled spoon to scoop the dough and drop it into the oil. Fry until golden brown, then carefully remove and immediately drop the donuts into the syrup. The longer you let the donuts sit in the syrup, the sweeter they’ll be. 

The donuts should be crispy on the outside and airy on the inside. They are best served hot with more honey drizzled on top. 

At The Table With...Sana Khan of Chai and Pie Co.

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