When eating the ice cream sold at Republic of Booza in Brooklyn, you’ll find yourself chewing it.
That’s the thing about booza, the Middle Eastern sweet treat that distinguishes itself from more commonly known ice cream and gelato by being denser and creamier and boasting an elasticity that allows it to truly stretch in form: It certainly looks like ice cream and might even slightly taste like it, but it doesn’t feel like it when actually eaten.
At Republic of Booza, patrons can choose from a total of 17 rotating flavors on any given day. But only one resembles the original treat, still served at Bakdash, the ice cream shop in Damascus, Syria, that opened in 1885 as the very first booza shop in the world.
That original flavor is qashta, which translates to “candied cream.” Although Republic of Booza’s claims to fame are the creatively delicious modern-day flavors it serves in booza form, the basic process to prepare them is not unlike that of qashta.
It starts with milk, cream, and sugar, which are then mixed with two ancient ingredients: sahlab, a ground orchid root predominantly found in Lebanon, and mastic, a resin released by the bark of a tree that grows exclusively on Chios, a Greek island. “We actually import [the mastic] directly from the Chios Mastiha Growers Association, a consortium of farmers that are certified,” says Michael Sadler, one of the four co-owners of Republic of Booza. The concoction is then put into a freezer drum but, instead of being churned out as ice cream, it is taken and alternately pounded with a three-foot-long wooden pestle and stretched by hand to achieve the elastic consistency for which the dessert is known.
One thing makes itself apparent while talking to Sadler: Given the part of the world where the treat originated and the historical time period loosely associated with its first appearance, definitive information about the origins of booza are hard to unearth.
Here is what we do know: Booza was likely first developed over 500 years ago in the Levant region, which at the time encompassed modern-day Syria, parts of Greece, southern Turkey, and Lebanon. Even the official name of the stuff is up for contention, as some in Turkey refer to it as dondurma. Booza does, however, seem to be the most widely used term. “The best sort of hypothesis that we found is that it was an Arabization of the Turkish word for ice,” explains Sadler. “It probably goes back to some dialect that was being spoken in this area that is now between present-day Turkey and present-day Syria.”
According to Sadler, what makes booza even more special is its ability to be a “vehicle for flavor,” thanks to two major aspects involved in its preparation. The first is sweetness. “It requires less sugar than regular ice cream to achieve its final consistency,” Sadler says. “That means that it doesn’t have to be super sweet; it’s not just destroying [your palate], which opens up more possibilities to explore different flavors and nuances that would get lost in something that was just a sugar bomb.”
The second aspect is temperature, which allows creators to play around with flavors. Whereas conventional ice cream is usually served around zero to five degrees Fahrenheit and gelato around five to six degrees Fahrenheit, booza’s ideal temperature is higher, reaching 12 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit. “At ultra-cold temperatures, the spectrum of taste gets distorted,” Sadler explains. “Booza’s temperature showcases all the nuances, the full depth of flavor of what is going into it that often gets lost when you have a ton of sugar and ultra-cold temperatures.”
As a result of said characteristics, Republic of Booza has produced the likes of salted Oreo (a riff on a more traditional cookies-and-cream), black walnut miso butterscotch, Mexican hot chocolate, cranberry sauce sorbet, and more. “People are used to flicking through and everything being superficial, just the picture and a couple of words,” he says. “Now people are looking for things that offer substance, that have a tradition.”
As delectable and interesting as the flavors might be, it is the visual properties of booza that render it—at least at first glance—a striking product. Sadler and his team are opposed to using the term “stretchy,” finding “elastic” to be more suitable., but that’s what booza also is: a stretchy ice cream that looks awesome in photos and videos—valuable currency in the 21st century.
“I think the spectacle is certainly a very beautiful product, it’s photogenic. I think that attracts people to it as a hook,” Sadler says. “But at the same time, there is something very much of-the-moment about it. People love ice cream, and there is this incredible style that’s been around for hundreds of years and nobody ever knew about it in the States. I think that concept has really resonated.”
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