Baklava A Sweet Assortment of Cultures -Fahmida Mehreen
Breakfast, lunch or dinner – as a sweet-tooth, I always have room for desserts. I like both traditional eastern sweet dishes like rice pudding and gulab jamun, and western fusion desserts like trifle and tiramisu. But among all, one of my all-time favourite desserts is baklava. The first time when I tried baklava, it was an enchanting experience. I could feel the softness of the dough melting in my mouth with a splash of flavours from nuts and caramel dissolving inside. It seemed like a heavenly dessert, I must say!
Now, baklava is not just a traditional dessert, but something that goes long way back in history. The origin of this dessert is unclear to date since several nations claim it as their own. Nonetheless, from the pages of history, it can be derived that it is generally accepted that the first baklava originated in the Assyrian Empire sometime around 800 BC. That’s a long time ago, right! Layers of baked dough were covered with an array of finely chopped nuts and glazed with honey to be served on special occasions. Through the trade channels, the Greeks had an encounter with this delicate sweet item and developed a fondness for it. Later, they introduced their own version of it with thinner dough phyllo, which translates to ‘leaf’. It made the layers lighter, softer and more delicate. Down the line, the development of spice routes and silk routes further influenced the dessert with the introduction of ingredients like rosewater, cardamom and cinnamon, making it extensively mouthwatering.
The baklava that we enjoy today is widely accredited to the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth century thereon. It is hard to locate any particular location for its origin, courtesy to the vastness of the empire. However, each nation conquered by the Ottomans made its own contribution in formulating baklava. Amidst all, one of the mentionable contributions was made by the cuisinier of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It was a personal favourite of the then ruling Sultan, and it was a tradition that he would be serving baklava to his soldiers on the fifteenth day of the holy month of Ramadan. It was called ‘The Baklava Parade’, which was held for the purpose of showing strength and appreciation for the army.
Today, there are many countries, including Bangladesh, where baklava is made and sold. Nevertheless, it is needless to say that Turkey is one of the finest makers of baklava today. The process of making modern time baklava includes stretching of dough to the utmost that makes it almost transparent before being buttered and layered. For the initial bake, a filling consisting of a whole range of nuts including pistachios from Gaziantep, Aegean almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts coming from the Black Sea Region are used. Sugar syrup rather than honey is poured over on top once the primary baking is done. As simple as it looks, the making of baklava requires a lot of manpower. A whole team of bakers, consisting of at least five to six members, sometimes, even more, will roll out the dough sheets, layer them with finely cut assorted nuts, mostly green nuts, pour sugar syrup and melted butter and cut them into diamonds before placing it in the oven. A standard 13 to 15 minute is needed for it to bake in the oven. But then again, the time depends on the temperature and the size of the batch. Once out of the oven, it is left to cool before being served. Since the dessert is thoroughly covered with nuts, they are typically grounded to powder to be sprinkled over the top, which makes it more tempting for the eyes and for the taste bud.
Like many other sweet dishes, baklava also comes in a wide variety, depending on the level of sweetness, shape, use of nuts and other rudimentary ingredients. For example, ceviz dolma is a round-shaped compact traditional baklava with whole walnuts wrapped in multiple layers in filo pastry, while saray sarmasi is similar to ceviz dolma, but instead it is filled with ground pistachios and walnuts. There is durum, which is a single layer of filo pastry, rolled around a heavy mixture of powdered pistachios, which turns the pastry into bright green in colour. Some of the other popular types are ozel kare which is similar to traditional baklava but contains double layers of chopped pistachios instead of powered nuts, visneli contains a sour cherry filling instead of nuts (though sometimes nuts are added for a scrumptious texture), kestaneli, which is a filo pastry layered with grounded chestnut and topped with pistachios, burma, which is less sweet and contains pistachios wrapped in filo pastries into one long sausage before being chopped into slices, and basma in which nuts are sandwiched between kunefe dough made from long thin strands of pastry that are baked until crisp.
Before coming to modern times baklava, it has gone through different stages of influences and customizations. Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans, Caucasia with Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians of today, who were once parts of the Ottoman Empire, had introduced baklava as their national desserts. Nevertheless, the baklava that we know today is typically triangular or diamond-shaped, covered with nuts and brushed with butter and honey. It is a popular item served by different nations and communities on special and auspicious occasions like the Christens serve it on Easter, Muslims enjoy it during Ramadan, and Jews tend to enjoy it as a Rosh Hashannah and Purim treat.
In Bangladesh, baklava has become a well-known dessert over the last few decades. With expanded globalization, people have not only learned about baklava but also developed a great taste for it. Many of the traditional sweetmeat shops sell baklava as an exclusive item. They are also served on the dessert table in fine dining buffets. People tend to bring it home when travelling back from abroad, especially from the Middle Eastern countries. Hence, it can be said that besides the traditional Bengali sweets, baklava has secured its place as a favourite of the people. But, it still has a long way to go to make it to the layman’s dinner table.
As quoted by Ram Dass, the American spiritual teacher, psychologist and author, “I experience each moment like baklava: rich in this layer, and this layer, and this layer” – life is an exploration. You never know what’s coming up next, just like the next layer of baklava. Therefore, if you are a dessert enthusiast, baklava is a must-try for you if you haven’t tried it already. Even if you are not a profound lover of sweets, treat yourself with a piece of baklava – this life is too short to regret your decision!