For some time now, Greek Cypriot baklava makers have been loudly proclaiming to all who would hear that the baklava was in fact invented by them. Prima facie, this is a justifiable claim, since it is common knowledge that the Greeks invented everything except for edible underwear. However, things came to a head when in preparing to celebrate Europe Day in May, the European Union published a poster claiming the baklava as a Greek-Cypriot national dessert. Predictably enough, this ignited infuriated protests by Turkish baklava producers who claim baklava as their own, with the support of State Minister and EU Chief Negotiator Ali Babacan in the EU General Secretariat.
While the rumour that there were plans for incensed protesters to invade the poster and establish their sovereignty over one third of its expanse, setting up a rival poster in that corner is most probably apocryphal, a protest in which banners proclaiming "Baklava is Turkish, we will not allow the Greek Cypriots to feed it to the world" were held in Constantinople. The owner of renowned baklava producer "Haci Sayid Baklava," Halil Dincerler fervently pronounced: "Baklava is Turkish, what the Greek Cypriots are presenting is just a copy. We will go all the way to Brussels, and we will let the EU ministers taste real baklava."
Pouring oil on the frying pan of this international food fight, President of the Baklava and Dessert Producers Foundation, Mehmet Yildirim stated that it was time for Turkey to stand up and claim its national treasures, and recalled that the Turks had brought baklava with them all the way from Central Asia. Yildirim also said that there were documents in existence which proved that baklava belonged rightfully to the Turks.
Interestingly enough, this conflict has been simmering for a very long time, not on the computer screens and chat-rooms of dorky ultra-nationalists but within the respectable circles of international academia. Vryonis (1971) for example, identifies the ancient gastris, kopte, kopton, or koptoplakous, mentioned in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus as baklava, and calls it a 'Byzantine favorite'. However, Perry (1994) shows that, though gastris contained a filling of nuts and honey, it did not include any dough; instead, it involved a honey and ground sesame mixture similar to modern pasteli or halva (kopte means 'pounded sesame').
Perry then assembles evidence to show that layered breads were created by Turks in Central Asia and argues that the 'missing link' between the Central Asian folded or layered breads (which did not include nuts) and modern phyllo-based pastries like baklava is the dish Baki pakhlavası. Further development would have occurred in the kitchens of the Ottoman Sultans, where the Janissaries had an annual celebration called Baklava Alayı.
On the other hand, Buell (in Christian, 1999) argues that the word "baklava" is of Mongolian origin, and mentions a recipe in a Chinese cookbook written in 1330, under the Yuan dynasty.
While this inter-ethnic strife is being played out in ethnic kitchens throughout the world and the main protagonists are oblivious to all else but their own self-righteousness, further suitors have arrived in the middle of the night as it were to claim the bride as their own. For the truth of the matter is that just like the baklava itself which is a composite dish comprised not of singular but several ingredients, so too have many nations taken the baklava to the boudoir of their hearts, indulged in it and left it changed forever.
Thus it was the Assyrians at around 8th century B.C. who were the first people that put together a few layers of thin bread dough, with chopped nuts in between those layers, added some honey and baked it in their primitive wood burning ovens. This earliest known version of baklava was baked only on special occasions. In fact, baklava was historically considered a food for the rich until the mid-19th century. In Turkey, to this day one can hear a common expression often used by the poor, or even by the middle class, saying: "I am not rich enough to eat baklava and burek every day".
The Lebanese claim that Greek seamen and merchants traveling east to Mesopotamia soon discovered the delights of Baklava. It mesmerized their taste buds and they brought the recipe back home. Our major contribution to the development of this pastry is the creation of a dough technique that made it possible to roll it as thin as a leaf, compared to the rough, bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough, hence the name "Phyllo" meaning leaf in Greek. 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. The Armenians, their kingdom being located on ancient Spice and Silk Routes, were supposedly the first to integrate cinnamon and cloves into the texture of baklava. The Arabs introduced rose-water and cardamon. The recipe changed in subtle nuances as it started to cross borders. To the north of its birthplace, baklava was being baked and served in the palaces of the Sassanid Persian kingdom. To the west, it was baked in the kitchens of the wealthy Roman mansions, and then in the kitchens of the Byzantine Empire until its fall.
After the fall of Byzantium, until the decline of Ottoman Empire in 19th Century, the kitchens of Imperial Ottoman Palace in Constantinople became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire.
The bakers, cooks and pastry chefs who worked in the Ottoman palaces, were recruited from various ethnic groups that composed the empire. Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian and occasionally Serbian, Hungarian or even French chefs were brought to Constantinople, to be employed at the kitchens of the wealthy. These chefs contributed enormously to the interaction and to the refinement of the art of cooking and pastry-making of an Empire that covered a vast region of Southern Europe, the middle East and North Africa. Towards the end of 19th Century, small pastry-shops started to appear in Constantinople and in major provincial capitals, to cater to the middle class, but the Ottoman Saray always remained premier culinary center of the Empire, until its demise in 1923.
One can understand why baklava was of key significance to the house of Othman. Two principal ingredients of the exquisite dish, pistachio and honey, were believed to be aphrodisiacs when taken regularly. Certain spices added to baklava, have also helped to fine-tune and to augment the aphrodisiac characteristics of the pastry, depending on the sex of the consumer. Cinnamon for females, and cardamon for males were held to be beneficial, while cloves are unisex. We therefore have baklava to thank for the longevity of the Ottoman line.
From the 18th century on, there was not much one could do to improve upon the baklava's already perfected taste and texture. There were however, some cosmetic modifications in shaping and in the presentation of it on a baking tray (called Sinii). The Phyllo (called Youfka) which was traditionally layered and cut into squares or triangles, was given a "French touch" in late the 18th century. As the Empire began opening itself to Western cultural influences, the Kahyabaşi of the Imperial Kitchens hired Monsieur Guillaume, a former pastry chef of Marie Antoinette, who in exile at the Ottoman Turkish Palace after learning how to bake baklava, created the "dome" technique of cutting and folding of the baklava squares which was named "Baklava Francaise" after the nationality of its creator.
So which suitor earns the bride? One is astounded to learn that it could be the outside favourite, the Lebanese. Lebanon has been a leader in promoting baklava throughout the world. Lebanese baklava bakers such as Samedi were the first to Franchise it in the Gulf region, Europe and throughout the Middle East. In the United States the most famous Baklava is made by Shatila in Michigan. If Lebanon continues to promote this dessert it will be able to claim that it is the rightful owner of the baklava. As one Lebanese baklava maker told me: "Turkey and Greece therefore should stop this crazy Baklava war, because they both copied the dessert, but Lebanon did a better job at copying." Further they Lebanese maintain that a the original idea was the Assyrians' and that at that time Lebanon formed a part of that Empire, this gives them some sort of ancestral claim over our birthright.
Never! Let the FFA ban the public consumption of baklava at soccer matches for all I care. Our community will not take this lying down. We have lost too much as a people to suffer this final assault upon our culinary integrity. It is time we joined forces with our Turkish brethren and burned the pride of these upstarts in the oven-kilns of their own presumptuousness. What will be next? Boureki? Kataifi? These are sacred symbols of Hellenism that cannot be so blatantly abrogated by those among us with lesser cutting skills. We will julienne them, we will grind their pride in the mortar of our righteousness with the pestle of our indignation. Now join me for the national anthem: "Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη, του σπαθιού στο Ιμάμ Μπαϊλντί," or my particular favourite Christakis classic: "Παίζουν τα μπακλαβαδάκια."
First published in NKEE on 5 June 2006