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With the Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians all having claimed baklava as their national dessert, the history of the saccharine dish is a bit more complicated than expected. Here, we recount the story of the dessert as best we can.
It could be said that the Ottoman Empire’s wide reach across its dominions in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Caucasia could be the reason why various cultures call baklava their own dessert. However, whether the dessert came from the ancient Greek or Byzantine empires or the nomadic Arabs or Turks, is still uncertain. What we can say is that the dessert took on quite the elaborate forms during the Ottoman period, with written evidence in the Topkapı Palace kitchen notebooks beginning in 1473.
During this time, baklava became the dessert of celebration being offered, for example, during traditional circumcision ceremonies, banquets or visiting guests. It is also important to note that the preparation of baklava became a high skill that was perfected in order to please the dignitaries and high society. Being a baklava usta (master) was preferred by wealthy employees who wanted their cooks to be able to make baklava with the thinnest layers of dough possible, quite the acquired skill, sometimes requiring a lifetime to learn.
In the old konaks (mansions belonging to the upper class), skilled cooks were expected to fit 100 thin pieces into the tray when making their perfect baklava. Stories are even recounted that the mansion’s owner would inspect the baklava before it was cooked; if a gold coin dropped from half a meter in the air perpendicularly didn’t go through the dough and reach the bottom of the tray, it was sent back.
A dessert of the sultans, baklava became synonymous with wealth and sophistication as well as a state tradition. In the late 17th century, the baklava parade began to take place where the empire’s soldiers were treated to the decadent dessert during the big feast of the Ramazan holiday. The procession of baklava trays being carried from to the barracks became a parade, with a long march cheered on by the people of Istanbul.
Today, baklava is no longer only a dessert for the rich, having become a ubiquitous gift for every kind of celebration. In Turkey, every birth, visit, wedding, graduation or funeral is accompanied by boxes of baklava, the most famous of which is from the city of Gaziantep, known for its excellent pistachios (baklava’s favorite filling).