An all-natural sweetener used in the Anatolian region for centuries, pekmez is a molasses traditionally made from grapes, but is also made from fig, mulberry, dates, carob, juniper berries and other fruits. While it is a natural source of sugar for cooking or direct consumption, it is also known for its health benefits in boosting energy and for treating multiple other ailments.
How is pekmez made?
The ancient practice of making pekmez was used by some of the earliest Turkic tribes as a way of preserving the excess fresh fruits of the summer. While the fruits had a short shelf life, they could still be enjoyed even when they were no longer available during the cold winter months. Many of the same drying, pickling and concentration methods to preserve food are still used in the region today.
When made traditionally, grapes are harvested in the fall then gathered into large sacks. Later, juice is extracted by stomping on them (this is known as şıra). The juice is then pressed, boiled and regularly stirred until it is reduced into a molasses. Sometimes, it is mixed with marl – a type of clay – which reduces the acidity of the grapes. After it has been thickened, it is poured into airtight glass jars.
Most grape pekmez is produced in Eastern Turkey including Gaziantep, my husband’s home city. It is a versatile food that can be spread on a slice of bread, used as a sugar substitute, or mixed with water and drank. It is also used in a number of other dishes – sometimes combined with sesame paste (tahini) and eaten for breakfast, or even made into “sucuk” where a string of walnuts are dipped into the pekmez and dried for a sweet snack. My mother in law also makes muska, where large sheets of dried pekmez (pestil) are cut and rolled into triangles with crushed walnuts and cinnamon stuffed inside.
What are pekmez health benefits?
Pekmez is rich with minerals and vitamins including calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium which are beneficial for a number of conditions. The concentrations of each of these minerals are dependent on the fruit used.
Pregnant women are given pekmez most often for its medicinal purposes, as well as new, nursing mothers who have recently given birth. In part, that is because pekmez increases blood production in the body. This also makes it a popular remedy for those with anaemia.
Because children are still growing, pekmez also regularly given to children for its nutritive value as its high calcium content strengthens bones. My kids love the taste of grape pekmez (üzüm pekmezi) and prefer to drink it mixed with water. We give them about 2-3 teaspoons mixed with warm water in a Turkish tea cup. As Turkish adults are often drinking çay (pronounced like chai, meaning tea) from these delicate cups, that’s what they call it – their “çay.”
The simple sugar in pekmez is directly absorbed into blood without needing to be digested, so consuming it can also give an energy boost (however, this also makes it unsuitable for diabetics). This, plus the other minerals make it suitable to provide to someone who is feeling weak, or who needs the extra energy such as athletes or workers. My husband has a very labor-intensive job, and he takes a spoonful of mulberry pekmez (dut pekmezi) every morning. Sometimes, he even uses it as syrup on pancakes!
Other touted health benefits included regulation or blood pressure levels, a healthy digestive system, and carob pekmez is even given to those with lung disease.
Where can you get it?
Now, where can you buy pekmez outside of Turkey? If you’re fortunate enough to live near a Turkish grocery shop, you may be able to find it there. It is also available from several retailers online. If you have the privilege of visiting Turkey one day, be sure to put it on your list of souvenirs to bring home.