• Borek brings back wonderful memories for Dilvin Yasa. (Christopher Ireland / Feast Magazine)Source: Christopher Ireland / Feast Magazine
Whether it's filled with cheese and spinach or mince and onion, there's little this Turkish slice of heaven won't fix, swears Dilvin Yasa.
Dilvin Yasa

6 Jul 2020 - 11:12 AM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2020 - 11:19 AM

In my memory, the moment presents itself as a sort of culinary jack-in-the-box. "What the hell is this?" I shrieked as my mother placed a large metal tray down before me, the familiar smell of crisp pastry and sweet cooked onions overpowering the room. "Yeah… I always knew how to make it, I just told you I didn’t because I could never find the time," Judas my mother replied. Bőrek memory #417: complete and utter betrayal.

Like much of Turkish tale-telling, the history behind bőrek – essentially pastries made of thin, flaky dough such as yufka or filo and loaded with a variety of fillings – is murky. Some say the dish as it is known today derived from the Byzantine plakous (a pastry commonly stuffed with honey and cheese or chopped nuts). Others claim it was created by the nomadic Turks of Central Asia well before the seventh century. I don't know which is more accurate; I'm far more interested in the role the dish has played in my own personal family history.

Lamb borek with cucumber, radish and parsley salad

Using filo pastry often means using lashings of butter which, while delicious, doesn’t do much for the waistline. Yoghurt is a great alternative and not only makes the recipe healthier, but adds another subtle flavour to the dish.

I first fell under the powers of bőrek as a little one, while afternoons spent sitting under tabletops as aunts (biological and close family friends) meticulously brushed an egg-yolk mixture between sheets of pastry and filling. Sometimes I would fall asleep to the sounds of their chatter, but mostly I would sit, my mouth watering, as the waft of toasted nigella seeds filled the house.

"I first fell under the powers of bőrek as a little one, while afternoons spent sitting under tabletops as aunts meticulously brushed an egg yolk mixture between sheets of pastry and filling."

Sight, sound, taste – I found the dish comforting in every way, and as the years passed and members of the original group grew older and passed away, I was left floundering. After a while, the smell of toasted nigella seeds became something I could only visit in my memory.

Making homemade borek is something special.

Much like a dissatisfied spouse who looks for love outside the family home, I realised as a teen that I had to take my affections further afield. With no chance of enjoying bőrek at home and still far too lazy and sullen to consider trying to bake it myself, I travelled the world in search of it. Variations of the dish are far-reaching and often found in the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire (particularly northern Africa and throughout the Balkans).

In Turkey itself, regions have their own varieties of bőrek, from the sweet Laz bőreği in the northern Rize province, to the Paçanga bőreği of Istanbul, and this is where I spent my 20s hoovering every type I could find. More than 10 years of research tells me this: su bőreği (where the dough is boiled briefly so it takes on a super-soft consistency) is the best of the lot and must be drunk with tea as strong as poison. Heaven.

Cheese and herb pastry (borek)

Borek is traditionally cooked in a round borek tray, however, an oven tray or 30 cm cake pan will work just as well.

Today I have daughters of my own, two little meteors wandering around the kitchen wondering if their mother is ever going to come to the party on this whole baking-bőrek-from-scratch thing. Not quite yet, but with a pretty decent version of frozen su bőreği at our local Turkish supermarket always in our freezer, and my mother ready to bake at a moment's notice (it's the least she could do), I get the feeling the dish is going to feature heavily in my girls' memories too.

Me? I just plan to toast nigella seeds every now and then for effect. Minimum effort, maximum gain.

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