There might be nothing else that evokes Turkey more than the mention of baklava. Almost every rite of passage in the country is accompanied by this sweet and flakey pastry, be a birth, wedding or celebrations at the end of Ramadan. While the exact origin of any food is nearly if not completely impossible to pin point among the myriad people and cultures who have and continue to live in what is now Turkey, this dessert is inextricable from the land of Turkey.
What is baklava?
Before even discussing its history, it should be made clear what baklava is. This dessert is prepared with layers of thin dough called “yufka”, similar to phyllo, that are layered on top of each other. Different fillings are used, although the most common is crushed pistachios. With melted butter drizzled all over, the dish is then baked and drenched in syrup.
This would be the most basic and iconic of all the types of baklava, but indeed there are many others with different fillings, such as walnuts, hazelnuts or a combination of nuts. Baklava can be cut into different shapes and sizes and even be rolled. Some can have a cream filling and be made with milk, as well.
The many layered baklava we know today was developed in the kitchens of the Topkapı Palace and was baked after the conquest of Constantinople. While kitchen notebooks with the recipe have been dated to around 1473, the origins of the dessert date much further back.
Probably one of the earliest mentions of a dessert resembling baklava comes from the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE. According to Franz Maier, the dessert was described as “layering unleavened flat bread with chopped nuts and honey”.
The first Turks to enter Anatolia were nomadic, hence the baking of bread in a stationary oven was just not feasible. In the 11th century it is mentioned in writing, that they found the best way to bake dough for them was to roll or stretch it as thin as possible and cook it over a fire. It is also only human to grow weary of eating the same food over and over again, so innovations were made to get more sweet combinations on the table as well (6).
One precursor that can be marked as the link of the first Turks in Anatolia is “Baki pakhlavası”, or Baku baklava, which was made of eight sheets of dough with nuts in between each layer (1).
So how come that the Greeks claim this dessert for their own? Professor Speros Vryonis said explains that a dessert called “koptaon” or “kopte” resembled baklava. American journalist Charles Perry, on the other hand, claims that the cited evidence is not enough to support this. He says the Byzantine dessert mentioned was indeed layered, but did not have any kind of dough, making it a confection rather than a pastry like baklava. (1)
Further evidence is another early recipe of baklava found in an Arabic cook book from the 13th century by the name of Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib, where the dessert has both an Arabic and Turkish name (4). Further evidence to baklava’s Turkish origin is the dish “tutmaç” which is layered just like baklava but evolved into a savory dish over the centuries still enjoyed today. (5).
One last note to make here is that the Turks have made a small but significant victory in claiming the dessert as their own: In 2013 the EU awarded the famous Gaziantep Baklava the “protected status”, becoming the 16th non-EU food to receive the status.
The word baklava entered the English language circa 1650 as a borrow word from Ottoman Turkish. Its etymological origins are also as diverse as claims of ownership. According to Historian Paul D. Buell the word may come from the Mongolian verbal root “baγla-” meaning “to tie, pile up” (2). Sevan Nişanyan, the author of the “Turkish Etymology Dictionary”, finds the origin in the Turkic words “baklağı” and “baklağu” from prior to the 16th century. Other linguists have theorized that the word was derived from “bahlahu”, meaning bundle (3).
Types of Baklava
Types of baklava can be separated in two categories according to filling and how they are cut or shaped.
While there is a wide variety of baklava, not counting the many homemade versions, there are sadly some versions no longer found that have their origins in the Ottoman Empire. For example, there used to be a version with a bean paste of sorts and one with musk melon in place of nuts (5).
Baklava – the iconic nut-filled layers of sweet goodness
- 1 egg
- 240 ml water
- 90 ml oil
- 3 tbsp butter
- 135 gr yogurt
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 10 gr baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 850 gr flour
- starch for rolling
For the filling
- 500 gr pistachios
For the syrup
- 850 gr sugar
- 1.5 liter water
- A few drops of lemon juice
- Before getting started with anything else, it is important to first prepare the syrup. Mix water and sugar and bring it to a boil. Let it simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice, give it a stir and let it cool.
- Add all the ingredients for the dough into a bowl and knead it until everything is incorporated. Let the dough rest for half an hour and separate it into eight equal parts. Dust your surface with starch and roll the dough out as thinly as possible. Let the rolled out dough rest for another 10-15 minutes. Oil a baking tin of your choice and place sheets of the dough into the tin. Add the crushed pistachios and then place another four layers of dough on top. Now cut the baklava into any shape you want. It is essential to do the cutting before baking. Melt the butter and pour it over the baklava.
- Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for about 40 minutes until golden brown. It is important to monitor its progress while baking.
- As soon as you remove the baklava from the oven, pour over the syrup and let it soak it in.
NotesIf you want to roll the dough as thin as possible, there is a technique from the kitchens of Topkapı Palace that makes it easier than rolling it out individually. Separate the dough into more parts than eight parts, such as 16, for example, and roll them out just a little bit until about the size of a small plate. Put two or three sheets onto each other, making sure to add starch in between, and continue rolling them out as thin as possible. When done correctly, this method usually yields thinner individual sheets. Do not be alarmed if the dough tears a bit. You can still layer them. No one has ever become a dough rolling master on their first try!
Pistachio filling is just one possibility. Walnuts and hazelnuts are just as tasty. Walnuts are usually the cheaper alternative while hazelnut baklava is often made along Turkey’s Black Sea coast.
Bibliography(1) Charles Perry, “The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava”, in “A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East”, ed. Sami Zubaida, Richard Tapper, 1994.
(2) Paul D. Buell, “Mongol Empire and Turkicization: The Evidence of Food and Foodways”, 1999.
(3) “Grand Larousse encyclopédique en dix volumes”, 1992.
(4) Charles Perry, “Early Turkish Influence on Arab and Iranian Cuisine”, 1993.
(5) Priscilla Mary Işın, “Yufka: Food for the Cook’s Imagination” in “Wrapped & Stuffed Foods: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012”, ed. Mark McWilliams, 2012.
(6) Ziyat Akkoyunlu, “Türk Mutfağından Kaybolan Kerkük Yemekleri” in Motif Akademi Halkbilimi Dergisi, vol. 2, pp. 328-336, 2012.