Takeaway

Sweet on baklava

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on September 11, 2020 Published on September 10, 2020

Stuffed goods: The shell-shaped midye baklava comes with a soft filling of milk and semolina   -  ISTOCK.COM

A day in Istanbul devoted to the Turkish dessert for all occasions is one that’s well spent

* The baklava originated in the Ottoman Empire, hence many countries in the region have different versions of the dessert

* It is made with 40 layers of extremely thin pastry called yufka and filled with pistachios of even size

* The two prime ingredients of baklava — pistachios (used in the Turkish version) and honey (found in the Greek variety) — were believed to be aphrodisiacs

Arriving in Istanbul on a bright and sunny afternoon, I forget jet lag and seek a sweet beginning to what is going to be a memorable Turkish holiday. I check into a hotel near the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet and set off in search of the perfect baklava, the Turkish sweet for all occasions.

As I walk through the lanes of Sultanahmet, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Istanbul, my eyes catch the hints of green at the windows that have stacks of filo pastry with pistachios. Touristy Cigdem Pastanesi, established in 1961, is my first stop for a hot cup of cay (chai) and my first baklava.

Tat mükemmel (it’s perfect),” exclaims Omer, the man behind the counter, pointing at the 15-odd varieties of baklava on display. I pick the classic one. The combo sets me back by about €5.

The first bite of the shiny, sweet, crunchy, pistachio-studded pastry is heaven. Made with 40 layers of extremely thin pastry called yufka and filled with pistachios of even size, the baklava can be eaten at any time of the day or night, and on any occasion. The sugar syrup is generously poured over it but never should it drip. The confectioner keeps basting the baklava with butter and sugar syrup because the pastry should never be dry. The best way to savour this sweet is by chewing each bite at least six times, I am told. And I do just that.

The baklava originated in the Ottoman Empire, hence many countries in the region have different versions of the dessert. But the battle over who invented it is typically between the Greeks and the Turks. The latter claim that the baklava was first made in the city of Gaziantep (or Antep) in the country’s Anatolia region. The Greek baklava has walnuts, and honey as the sweetener; the Turkish version uses pistachios and sugar syrup, and is lighter. There are variations within Turkey too, with the use of hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts.

Historically, the baklava was a favourite of the Ottoman sultans and the wealthy. It’s no longer food for just the rich. You can buy one in Istanbul for €2; you can also buy it for 10 times the price, depending on the bakery and the neighbourhood.

The two prime ingredients of baklava — pistachios (used in the Turkish version) and honey (found in the Greek variety) — were believed to be aphrodisiacs. At some point in time — probably when it was still consumed by only the rich and the powerful — cinnamon and cardamom were also added to the sweet in order to up its aphrodisiac quotient. The cinnamon, I learn, was added to please the women while the cardamom was for the men.

My next baklava stop is Sirkeci, the transportation hub of Istanbul, which is also known for its restaurants. I get off a tram in front of Ali Usta, a quaint, 300-sq ft shop that is a landmark of sorts. Seated, I order a chocolate baklava and tea. I must say it surprises me — I’m not big on chocolate but it tastes good in the baklava, cutting down the cloying sweetness. It gives me the energy boost I need to keep on the baklava trail.

One of the most happening neighbourhoods in Istanbul is Karaköy, near the Galata Bridge. It has a rich architectural and cultural heritage and is dotted with trendy cafés, galleries, museums and boutiques, alongside bakeries. Here I step into Karaköy Güllüoğlu, started in 1949 and credited with being Istanbul’s first baklava shop. (There are many branches of this family-owned bakery.)

At Karaköy Güllüoğlu, I choose the shell-shaped midye baklava with a milk-and-semolina filling and the larger palace baklava, made with about 30 filo layers and bigger pistachios. Opting for some strong Turkish coffee this time to balance the sweetness, I feast on the two baklavas. The milk used for the filling is often goat milk. The bakery also serves the dessert with a side of goat-milk ice cream. The soft filling complements the crunch of the pistachio and the pastry. The palace baklava, I find, is not as sweet as the classic but just as delectable.

Travelling around Istanbul, the bakeries constantly entice you with their delicious ware in the windows; more often than not, it is the baklava that stands tall amongst them all. A Turk, though, will tell you that all baklava is not the same — the best ones are crunchy, smell buttery and are sweet but not overpoweringly so. If the baklava doesn’t meet these standards, you still haven’t found the perfect one. However, in my search for the best, I find these qualities more than once. Given that I go back for more, I must say that this was truly a satisfying trip.

Latha Srinivasan is a journalist based in Chennai

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Published on September 10, 2020
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