Posted by Beshouy Botros on August 06, 2015 in Blog

Baklawa_Sweets.jpgThe most anticipated guests at Arab religious celebrations, weddings, and gatherings are the sweets, and among them Baklava emerges as the guest of honor. Baklava is claimed as a national dessert and favorite of dozens of countries in the eastern Mediterranean region. From Hungary to Iran, peoples abide by their own cult of Baklavism, in which matters of filling, syrup, and dough assume religious gravity. 

With so much diversity, pinning down an origin is a rather insurmountable task that has been the subject of historical debate. There is record of the ancient Assyrians consuming thin-layered dough with honey and nuts as early as the eighth century BC. Antique Byzantines and Cretans claim kopton and its antecedent, gastris; which are sweetmeats made of sesame seed dough, filled with nuts, and mixed with honey. Turks point to the nomadic legacy of consuming layered dough, baked on portable metal sheets out of necessity. This necessity became a luxury when the baklava we know today was served in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul in the late 15th century. The Sultan Kanuni Suleyman went so far as to organize a parade in the early 18th century in which soldiers sacrificed trimonthly pay and were treated to a feast and baklava. Indeed, the geography of baklava is the geography of the Ottoman Empire at its height, but as this series has shown us, foods have a way of taking on local meanings and flavors as they travel.

Making baklava is no simple task, and a multitude of recipes exist. At the most basic level, it is layered or rolled phyllo dough filled with nuts and topped off with a sweet syrup or honey. Within these parameters significant localism exists. Walnut fillings are most common in the Levant, pistachio fillings are preferred in Iran, almonds are used mostly in the Caucuses, and in Hungary they have managed to make an apricot version. These distinctions have likely developed overtime because of access to resources and differences in the climate, but today they take on new meaning and fervor. The construction of baklava also leaves room for creativity and controversy. In Greece, olive oil is used on the phyllo and exactly 33 layers of dough are used to represent the 33 years of Jesus Christ’s life, elsewhere butter is preferred and baklava takes the shape of diamonds, cups, rolls, and squares. Sweetener also varies -- in the Caucuses honey is a favorite, in Iran and Lebanon rose water syrup reigns supreme, and in Syria, Palestine and Jordan simple syrups, sometimes with orange blossom water, are preferred. After baking most pour their syrup or honey over the baklava, with the general rule of thumb being one element (the baklava or the sweetener), must be at room temperature and the other must be hot. Aunts and grandmothers continue to debate this while Syrians avoid the controversy by simply serving the syrup on the side.

The list of minor innovations and alterations of baklava could go on – an entire anthology could be devoted to typifying each batch. It is more important to consider that these subtleties exist and matter because they highlight both cultural exchange and difference. Although it’s very easy to think of the entire Middle East as an Arab land, baklava’s transcendent nature shows otherwise. It is a dessert shared by the peoples of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Levant, and each have their own distinguishing features. By being an Arab, Turkish, Persian, Greek (and so on) delicacy, baklava underscores the harmony in difference.

Beshouy Botros is an intern with the Arab American Institute