Is it baklava, baqlāwa, bāqlavā, or pʼaḫlava? Even the spelling and pronunciation of this exotic dessert is as complexed as its history. Searching for the origins of baklava can really take a person on an interesting historical journey. The Armenians, the Arabs and surprisingly the Mongolians each have a translation for the word baklava. Following the history of baklava made me think that Middle Eastern, Greek and Turkish foods developed from the Assyrians. I was always curious to know the origins of these cuisines.
There is one theory that says that, “the name “baklava” derives from the Armenian bakli halva, or “Lenten sweet”. In the Middle Ages, Armenian Christians prepared the pastry with 40 sheets of dough, one for each day of Lent. “(Kaufman S.R., 2008). There are some people who believe that baklava derives from the Arabic word of lava which means to roll. Even the origins of the word baklava is not an easy task, there are some people who believe that baklava has a Mongolian origin because of a dessert called güllach, “which is without question an early baklava.” It is believed that, “the name is from a Mongolian word meaning to pile up in layers.” (Buell P.D, 2007)
Baklava is one of the few desserts that is difficult to associate with just one nationality, “because every ethnic group whose ancestry goes back to the Middle East has a claim of their own on this scrumptious pastry.” (Assyrian International News Agency, 2008). Every country that associates baklava with their heritage contributed different ingredients to the development and perfection of this dessert. In order to understand how baklava travelled and how it adapted by different cuisines it important to understand the history of the Middle East starting from baklava’s origins and then moving onto the Ottoman Empire, that helped to develop baklava not only in flavors but also the variety of shapes. Each country or ethnic group that bakes baklava use ingredients that are available to them through what is naturally grown in their fields. (Hösükoğlu F., 1995)
While baklava was created in the Middle East it traveled mostly to Eastern Europe. It is believed that baklava inspired the recipe to apple strudel from Hungry and French pastries were influenced by baklava (this will be discussed later). There are still many debates between the different ethnic groups as to who invented baklava.
Background on the Middle East
In order to understand how baklava became the dessert that it is today it is important to look into the history of the two major empires that helped spread this sweet delight. The first empire is the Assyrian and the second one is the Ottoman.
There is no clear understanding when the Assyrian Empire was established however, there is archeological evidence that suggests that people inhabited the area of this empire in 5000 B.C. (BetBasoo P., 2013). In the Neo-Assyrian Empire starting from 738 and the space of just over 30 years, the Assyrian kings established their dominance, directly and indirectly, over the entire Mediterranean coast, Cilicia and southern Anatolia. (Kuhrt A.2002). It is believed that even thought the Assyrians were in power for hundreds of years it was only in the 8th century that they established trade routes. It wasn’t until the Assyrians opened their empire for trade that baklava traveled to Europe. The spread of baklava is believed to have started with the Greek seamen who came to the Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia in order to trade wool. It was during this time that the Greeks tasted baklava and took it back to Athens.
Baklavas’ Starting Point
The Assyrians prepared baklava, by layering unleavened flat bread with chopped nuts in between, drenching it in honey and then baking it in primitive wood burning oven.”(Gulf- times). Baklava not only entered the Greek culture but also the language. In fact, the name “Phyllo” was coined by Greeks, which means “leaf” in the Greek language. In a relatively short time, in every kitchen of wealthy households in the region, trays of baklava were being baked for all kinds of special occasions from the 3rd Century B.C. onwards. (Assyrian International News Agency, 2008). Many people believe that there are,“three capitals of best baklava making in the world today” are Istanbul; Gaziantep, a city in Turkey near the Syrian border opposite Aleppo; and Damascus, Syria. ( Kaufman S.K,2008)
The Ottoman Empire was established in the 15th century after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and collapsed at the end of World War I. The Ottoman Empire held vast territories including the same areas in which the Assyrians resided and once ruled . It was also during this time that food such as baklava began to spread to the Balkan countries.
The Sultans brought in chefs from Greece, Armenia, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and Serbia, which were places under their rule. The Ottomans also brought chefs from Hungry and France. (Assyrian International News Agency, 2008). The different ethnic groups, “added new layers to baklava (Assyrian International News Agency, 2008.” While each ethnic group perfected baklava in different ways it is interesting to know that, “Strudel in Hungary, and puff pastry in France, may have developed in imitation of the layered Ottoman pastries (Kaufman S.R., 2008).” The French influence on baklava itself is, “When baklava is cut into squares and the corners folded up to create the shape of a dome or tulip (see photo on next page), it is referred to as Frenk Baklavası or Baklava Française. (Kaufman S.R., 2008).”
Baklava in other Situations
Baklava was a dessert for the wealthy families especially amongst the Sultans. Not only was baklava a dessert for the wealthy but it was dessert that was eaten in the Harems and there was a difference in spices and the flavor would change according to gender. The baklava that was served in the harem had, “two principal ingredients, the pistachio and honey, were believed to be aphrodisiacs when taken regularly. Certain spices that were added to baklava, have also helped to fine-tune and to augment the aphrodisiac characteristics of the pastry, depending on male or female consumer. Cinnamon for females, and cardamom for males and cloves for both sexes.” (Assyrian International News Agency, 2008)
The City of Gaziantep
The city of n Gaziantep is located in south eastern Turkey on the border with Syria. This is exactly in the middle between Mesopotamia during Assyrian rule and the Ottoman Empire. Since Gaziantep lived through several empires its cuisine was influenced by, “ Syria Central Asia especially in the preparation of baklava.” (1995) In the 11th century the nomadic Turkic tribes, “ were fascinated by the idea of achieving layers in their breads.” The people in Gaziantep believe that they have preserved the original recipe to baklava. Hösükoğlu F., 1995 The Secret world of baklava. When comparing baklava that is made in Gaziantep the main difference is the syrup, we Only in Gaziantep is the syrup added hot to hot, baked baklava. With other baklavas the syrup may be hot and added to the cold baklava, or vice versa. But it is hot to hot that gives the Gaziantep baklava its very special flavour. Hösükoğlu F., 1995
In the article by Sheilah R. Kaufman (2008) I discovered some interesting facts about the contributions made by a variety of ethnic groups.
According to Kaufman, “.. Arab alchemists perfected the science and art of distillation, rosewater became an important ingredient in Turkish pastries and other dishes. In the 16th Century, baklava made its way to Eastern Europe in the wake of Turkish conquests there.”
The Greek baklava is made with cinnamon and walnuts. These walnuts are spread through alternative layers of the baklava. The overall taste of the baklava is spicer and “the syrup tarter than in the Middle Eastern baklava.” (Kaufman ,2008)
Baklava is often times eaten during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Ha’shanah ( head of the New Year). Baklava by Greek Jews is often made with honey which is symbolic for Jews’ to have a sweet New Year. Baklava is also associated to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur or day of atonement. Baklava would often be eaten for breaking the 25 hour fast. This is believed to be influenced from Ramadan.
The Persian recipe includes cardamom and rose-water is used instead of honey. (Kaufman, 2008)
According to Armenian cooking, the dessert should be so sweet that it hurts the teeth! Their baklava has layers of filling between every single layer of pastry. (Kaufman, 2008)
- 2 ¼ cups/300 grams shelled pistachio nuts
- 4 sticks/2 cups/454 grams unsalted butter
- 1 pound phyllo dough, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
- 3 cups/600 grams sugar
- Juice of 1/2 lemon, more to taste
- In a food processor, pulse the pistachios until coarsely ground (or you can chop them by hand until very finely chopped). Don’t overprocess the nuts. You want to maintain some texture.
- Clarify the butter by melting it over low heat, then letting it cook until the foam rises to the top and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan. This will take about 5 to 15 minutes depending upon how high your heat is, but don’t rush it or the butter could burn.
- Skim foam off the top of the melted butter. Line a fine-mesh sieve with a piece of cheesecloth, place it over a bowl and pour the melted butter through.
- Heat oven to 400 degrees and brush the inside of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with a little of the clarified butter.
- Prepare the phyllo dough by trimming the stack of it with scissors to fit the bottom of your baking dish. Packages of phyllo come in different sizes; some won’t need any trimming, some may need an inch or two cut off a side, and some may need to be cut in half crosswise. Cover phyllo layers with a lightly damp kitchen towel, and keep covered.
- Place 1 piece of phyllo on the bottom of the baking pan; brush lightly with clarified butter. Layer phyllo sheets on top, brushing each sheet with butter as you go, until half the phyllo is used.
- Spread pistachios on phyllo in an even layer, then layer with remaining phyllo, brushing each sheet with butter as you go (rewarm butter if necessary).
- Cut the pastry into 36 pieces, using clean up-and-down strokes and rotating the pan if necessary. Make sure to cut all the way through to bottom of pan. Pour any remaining butter evenly over pan.
- Bake baklava until the top is golden brown, and the lower phyllo layers beneath the pistachios are thoroughly baked through. To test this, use a knife to lift up a corner of one of the pastry rectangles from the center of the pan so you can peek at the bottom layers. Start checking after 40 minutes, but it could take an hour or even 1 hour 10 minutes. If the top starts to get too brown before the pastry is cooked through, lay a piece of foil over the top.
- Meanwhile, prepare sugar syrup: In a medium pot, combine sugar with 1 2/3 cups/400 milliliters water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Stir in lemon juice.
- When the baklava is baked through, reheat the syrup until it comes to a simmer. Remove pan from oven and place in the sink or on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips of syrup. Slowly pour hot sugar syrup over the pastry; it will bubble up and some may overflow. When the syrup stops bubbling, move pan to wire rack to cool completely. Serve at room temperature.
Betbasoo P. (2013), Brief History of Assyrians
Buell P.D., (2017), How Genghis Khan Has Changed the World
Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University
Hösükoğlu F., (1995), The Secret World of Baklava
International Congress of Mediterranean Cuisine
Kaufman S.R.,(2008), Sweets from the Middle East, BAKLAVA: A QUINTESSENTIAL SWEET FROM TURKEY, The Historians of Ann Arbor
Kuhrt A., (2002) Greek Contact with the Levant and Mesopotamia in the First Half of the First Millennium BC: A View from the East
The Gulf Times, (2018), Tracing true origins of baklava, a flaky pastry
Weiser T.H., A Honey like no other