Turkey, Greece and Lebanon may claim baklava as their own, but who created this layered treat? Diving into the pastry’s past, we discover royal associations, religious rituals and a ‘Baklava Procession’ from the 15th century.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

22 May 2017 - 9:35 AM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2018 - 2:34 PM

What is it?

Pronounced and spelt baklava or baklawa, depending on who you talk to, this layered sweet is made from filo pastry, nuts and a sugar syrup scented with rosewater, orange blossom, cinnamon, cardamom, and sometimes, even saffron. Crisp, yet moist, a good baklava should be sweet and fragrant, but never overpowering. Turkish, Greek and Bosnian baklava tends to incorporate walnuts in the filling, while pistachios are favoured by the Turks. Cashews also work well as the nutty component, but they tend to be a modern addition.

Whose dessert is it anyway?

While some Greeks claim that baklava originated under the Byzantine Empire, the most conclusive evidence says this dessert was actually born in the Central Asian Turkic region, and made its way to Arab, Balkan and Greek regions under the Ottoman rule. According to the Oxford Companion to Food filo dough “is clearly of Turkish origin”, and according to a dictionary of Turkish dialects, the word for ‘pleated/folded bread’ was used as far back as the 11th century, thus pre-dating the Greek word ‘filo’. 

For Alpha executive chef Peter Conistis, who recently appeared on The Chefs’ Line, this cultural interplay should be celebrated, not debated. 

“Greeks are going to hate me for this – sorry Greek community! – [but] a lot of dishes in Greek cuisine are of Turkish origin because of the occupation,” he admits. “I would say baklava is definitely of Turkish origins, but I’ve allowed it to become as Greek as I possibly can with how I work with it.”

“Greeks are going to hate me for this... I would say baklava is definitely of Turkish origins” -Peter Conistis, Alpha

“Some of the dishes from Greece have made it over into their cuisine and likewise. I respect that because it enabled the cuisines to become even richer.” 

Today you’ll find variations of baklava in a great number of countries, including Armenia, where it’s spiced with cinnamon and cloves; and Syria, where orange blossom water comes into play. For Bosnian home cooks, baklava, known as ruzice,  is made by rolling walnuts and crumbs (tirit) in pastry rounds, and arranged to resemble a rose bud. 

It's in Turkey, though, that you'll find geographical rights over the name ‘Antep baklava’. Just as Champagne, France is revered for its sparkling wine and Modena, Italy is a mecca of balsamic vinegar, Gaziantep in the Turkish region of Antep, is renowned for its quality of baklava. In 2013, Turkey's Patent Institute granted the city exclusive rights to use the name 'Antep baklava', further fanning the popularity of this sweet dish.  

Naming conventions aside, Sydney-based chef Somer Sivrioglu believes Gaziantep is home to the world's best baklava.

“I used to do [make my own baklava], and I used to do a half-decent job of it,” he told us in a recent interview for The Chefs' Line.  

“Then I went to this baklava house in Gaziantep and worked there for two days. [I realised] there's no way I can even come close to what they do. These guys... are doing this job for like 30, 40 years sometimes, and they still don't call themselves masters!”

After this pastry awakening, the Turkish-born chef began air-freighting baklava, twice weekly, straight from the source. Today his two Sydney restaurants, Anason and Efendy, serve baklava from that very Gaziantep house. 

Famous by association

It’s believed the modern-day version of baklava was created in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace during the Ottoman Empire. Under the sultan’s watch, elite palace guards (janissaries) were presented with a tray of baklava to mark to the Muslim ceremony of Ramadan. 

As described in The Oxford Companion to Food:

“On the 15th of Ramadan every year, the Janissary troops stationed in Istanbul used to march to the palace, where every regiment was presented with two trays of baklava. They would sling the trays in sheets of cloth form a pole and march back to their barracks carrying the baklava in what was known as the Baklava Procession.”

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Served as a gesture of appreciation, the trays of baklava would be enjoyed by janissaries after dark, once the daily Ramadan fast had come to its natural end. This ceremonial march became an annual spectacle in the Turkish city, and continued to 1826 when the Janissary Corps was liquidated.

Finishing the fast

For those who observe Ramadan, iftar is the evening feast that marks the end of a day-long fast. Families, friends and neighbours will often gather for this nightly celebration, which generally includes appetisers and soup, a shared main meal, along with desserts, such as baklava.

Under the Islamic tradition, sugar and sweet foods carry a symbolic significance. The meanings around which are commonly ascribed the Prophet Muhammed and two apocryphal sayings: "The love of sweets springs from faith" and "True believers are sweet." 

Regardless of its religiosity, dessert is seen as a sign of warm and generosity, and is commonly offered in Turkish homes, particularly during Ramadan iftar, as noted in the Los Angeles Times:

“In Turkey, sugar and sweet foods symbolize [sic] happiness and goodwill, and no special occasion is complete without sweets and candies. This is especially true of Ramadan… The three-day Ramadan feast after the month-long fast became so closely identified with sweets that since the 18th century, it has been popularly known as the Şeker Bayramı, or Sugar Feast.”

Known as Eid al-Fitr in Arabic, Şeker Bayramı is designed to celebrate the completion Ramadan and restore the health of all those who fasted. As its name suggests, sugar plays an important role in this feasting holiday, as families will prepare baklava and purchase candy and chocolate. As in the American holiday of Halloween, children will go neighbourhood door-knocking wishing people a happy bayram and, as a reward, collective sweets.

Not just a Muslim tradition

While baklava may be embedded in Muslim traditions to the greatest extent, the sweet also features in Orthodox Christian and Jewish ceremonies, such as Greek Easter and Purim. At Rosh Hashanah, baklava is generally made with blanched almonds, favoured for their lighter colour. For this auspicious celebration, Sephardic Jews are encouraged to refrain from serving dark-coloured desserts, ensuring a ‘dark year’ doesn’t follow. 

So no matter how you make baklava, who you credit the recipe to or whether you believe in its symbolic significance, this syrupy, nutty pastry is one we can all enjoy. 

bake your own baklava
Rose baklava (ruzice)

This dessert is a syrup lover's dream and is best served with black kahva to balance out the sweetness. Don't be shy, you can most definitely get spooning straight from the pan.

Frozen cashew baklava

A deconstructed version of Zaher Hallab's quintessential sweet, based around a cashew nut parfait. You will need an espuma gun (cream canister) to make the orange blossom foam (or you can simply omit it).

Antep-style pistachio baklava

Antep-style pistachio baklava is named after the city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey for which this classic sweet pastry is renowned. "Normally at the restaurant we make our own filo" says Somer Sivrioglu. "It’s so thin that you could read a newspaper placed under it. This is a more practical recipe, particularly fun to do with children".

Pistachio baklava

At Efendy, Somer uses Turkish or Iranian pistachios and makes the filo pastry from scratch, rolling it so thin that you could read a newspaper through it.