Where did Baklava Originate: Greece or Turkey?

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Baklava’s origin is always surrounded by the claims of both the Greeks and the Turks. The most ancient recipe from 2nd century BCE that resembles a similar dessert, is a baked dough dessert placenta covered with honey during Roman times. Lily unravels its mystery, tracing its origins, claims, and counterclaims, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

The first bite that I had, converted me into an ardent Baklava lover. Slowly gaining popularity in certain circles in India the taste and crunch are highly addictive. It is easily available in my favourite sweet shops in my hometown Chandigarh, neatly packed with an individual packing for each delectable morsel!

Baklava’s origin is always surrounded by the claims of both the Greeks and the Turks.

The most ancient recipe from 2nd century BCE that resembles a similar dessert, is a baked dough dessert placenta covered with honey during Roman times.

Patrick Faas identifies it as the origin of Baklava. The delicacy is scrumptious but its history is controversial. Since it is not well documented, the Middle Easterners also lay claim to it.

Baklava is actually layers of crisp Phyllo dough (paper-thin sheets of raw, unleavened flour dough used for making pastries).These are alternated with a spiced but sugary mixture of walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. Prepared in huge trays, it has melted shortening poured on top. After baking, it is soaked in a fragrant sweet syrup made with honey, lemon and cinnamon. The exotic sweet is cut into various shapes before serving after it is cooled.

The Christians serve baklava at Christmas and Easter, Muslims eat it during Ramadan and Jews relish it at Rosh Hashanah and Purim treat.

The best evidence points towards the Central Asian Turkic origin of this delicious sweet. The version of Baklava that we eat today was probably developed in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace. The Sultan presented trays of Baklava to Janissaries on every 15th day of Ramadan in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alayi.

Another interesting discovery for me was that the oldest known recipe for a kind of Proto Baklava is found in a Chinese cookbook written in 1330 under the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty under the name Gullach. The name ‘Gullac’ is also mentioned in Turkish cuisine. It has layers of Phyllo dough put one by one in warmed up milk and sugar. The accompaniments are walnut and fresh pomegranate. Ramadan is the perfect time for it.

Besides this, there is also another ancient recipe from the Greek island of Crete. Gastrin as it was known, is quite similar to modern Baklava. The unusual ingredients in this recipe are sesame seeds, pepper and poppy seeds. Petimezi, a sweetener made from grapes was used in it, much before sugar reached Greece. This added a unique taste to it.

Even though the Assyrians lay claim to the origin of Baklava too but the rough bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough is not anything like what the Greeks rolled out. The name Phyllo for the paper thin pastry comes from the Greek language where ‘Phyllo’ means leaf.

During the 18th century, a French twist was given to the Phyllo dough when a pastry chef of Mary Antoinette, in exile at the Ottoman Turkish Palace, created the dome technique of cutting and folding Baklava squares.

Baklava was chosen to represent Cyprus in the presentation, Sweet Europe, of the cultural initiative Cafe Europe in 2006. It led to a Baklava war proclaiming it as Turkish. They were annoyed at Greek Cypriots feeding it to the world.

Gaziantep, a city in Turkey is regarded as the native city of this exquisite dessert. In 2008, the Turkish patent office registered a geographical indication certificate for Antep Baklava.

Since Baklava is a rich treat, it is always served in tiny portions. The walnut filling is preferred in the Levant, pistachios and almonds are liked in Iran and Hungarians make an apricot filling.

For me, the Baklava squares in a tiny shop in the freezing temperatures of Denver, Colorado were the most lip-smacking of them all. It was owned by a Greek and was called Omonia Bakery. Try it please if you ever happen to visit that part of the USA. I could have sweet talked my daughter to buy me the whole shop!

For today, I will go off to Gopal Sweet Shop and buy myself some pistachio filled Baklava. Hurry and find some in your neighbourhood. I strongly recommend a drive to discover these.

©Lily Swarn

 Photos from the Internet

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Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.