Baklava: A Crisp Sojourn of the Middle East
I am not rich enough to eat Baklava and Boerek every day – forget the Boerek, but for Baklava, this was an age old saying which would be easily and still heard in small time tiffs taking place in the lanes and streets of Turkey.
The Baklava is a mouth-watering sweet dish which was believed to have originated in and around the 8th Century B.C. Assyrians were believed to have developed the recipe by adding thin bread dough and stuffing chopped nuts in the layers and topping them with pure honey to bake in their ancient styled wood ovens. It was a delicacy which was restricted to the plush and wealthy households up till the 19th Century. However, a large group of people believe that the baklava owes it origins to the Greeks.
So why should the Turks remain quiet?
They can definitely argue that the Viziers and Pashas were the ones to whom Baklava truly belonged. And the Lebanese? They can definitely point a finger at the Greeks for having stolen this fantastic recipe from them. While the Armenians will proudly proclaim that they are solely responsible for bringing this to their plates and also improving it. There can be many more groups who can literally squabble over the delicacy due to lack of proper documentation of its origin.
However, one of the best evidence can be found during the reign of Central Asian Turkic Empire. The version of baklava that is available today in most Middle East food hangouts are the ones that have been mostly brewed in the grand kitchens of the Topkapi Palace. One of the Ottoman sultans took the pleasure of presenting Baklava trays on every 15th of the holy month of Ramadan to the Janissaries in a ceremonial procession named Baklava Alayi.
In his work, Istanbul encyclopedia Prof. Dr. Ilber Ortayli, has extensively pointed out this ceremony where the Sultan or caliph pays a visit to the relic Hirka-I Serif. A regiment gets arranged where trays of baklava are prepared for a group of 10 soldiers belonging to the Kapilulu group. The first group of the offering is considered by “Siladar aga” and his group representing the Sultan. Two soldiers would shoulder the baklava tray that would be covered with skiff kik (usually a silk apron) in an orderly fashion. Trays and skiff kiks would be returned the next day except for the last one during the ceremony which was a gesture of expressing their delight for the dish.
Another reference is found in the Turkish cookbook named “Tibai Melceu’t Tabbahin” (Ascilarin Siginagi-shelter of Cooker). In the 6th part of this book, five kinds of Baklava with their recipes have been discussed by Mehmet Kamil some time in 1884. It is interesting to note that it was one of the first printed books on cookery, and Baklava found a place here.
“Umm Ali is one of the famous regional desserts on similar lines made with Phyllo sheets soaked in sweet reduced milk topped with nuts. This is generally finished in an oven which always finds its place in royal wedding globally. Even high-end luxury hotels have mastered the making of these desserts where they have trained their chefs through various international exposures,” says Bali Hardik,who has experience working with Taj group of hotels. Hence, it can be argued that baklava may have had an Egyptian origin like the Umm Ali.
Another reason to support that this delicacy came from Middle Asia since the word “ Baklahu” meant bundle of dough and the rolling pin which is required to make it has developed from the word “Oklahu”. But there’s also a possibility that the Turkish cuisines have merged many Mediterranean, Central Asian and Middle Eastern cooking styles from a period when it saw a glorious era during the pre-Turkish Ottoman Empire. The empire had an eye for beauty and would enrich their ever mystic Harem by bringing European and Asian origin women who not only played a vital part in adding diversity to their kitchens. Even the chefs recruited belonged to various ethnic backgrounds and the Ottoman Empire kitchen remained a top hub for culinary specialties till 1923 A.D.
Baklava was one of the top choices for the Caliphs and Sultans mainly because of the addition of honey and pistachio, both aphrodisiacs. Some more spices have been believed to augment flavor as well as the aphrodisiac quotient of the baklava. Cardamom, for instance, was considered good for males while cinnamon, for females, and cloves for both.
The Topkapi Palace itself is a testimony of the vastness of the Imperial kitchen with almost 20 chimneys, which prepared 6000 meals a day. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, all recipe archives were lost, so little is known whether the good old Baklava was actually inherited from any of these nations.
A Chinese cookbook has 1330 mentions of Gullach which also finds its reference in the Turkish cuisine. The recipe comprised preparing thin layers of Phyllo dough added one after another in warm milk with sugar. Served with pomegranate fruit and walnut, this was eaten during Ramadan and served as a nutritious food for the wealthy.
In fact, the word Phyllo was used by the Greeks to denote a leaf. In the ancient Greek recipe, poppy seeds, pepper, sesame seeds and a sweetener extracted from the grapes named Petimezi were used as ingredients to enhance the taste of the baklava. The Armenians were settled in and around the silk route and spice route and they started bringing in cloves and cinnamon – contributing to the texture of Baklava. Arabs sprinkled rose water and the taste kept changing bit by bit as the dish kept crossing borders. Except for some cosmetic modifications like serving baklava in a “Sini” or a specific baking tray, not much have changed since the 18th century when some French touch was rendered to it. Monsieur Guillame, a former chef of Marie Antoinette, an Archduchess of Austria, was hired by the general manager of the Turkish Palace. On a lighter note, had Marie Antoinette tasted the tempting Baklava, she would have modified her fall of Versailles statement from “If they don’t have breads, let them have cakes” to “ let them have Baklava”. Here originated the dome technique to cut and fold Baklava and was named Baklava Francaise or the Frenk Baklavasi, acknowledging the nationality of the maker.
So if you decide to this sweet of multi-ethnic origin, make sure that it melts in your mouth. But if it burns down your throat, then the sugar dough ratio has to be blamed and upon that if you get a stomach ache, then my dear friend you are far away from tasting the exquisite original Baklava.
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