Efkan Güllü’s family has been in the business of baklava for more than five generations. The current owner of Güllüoglu Baklava—a famed bakery based in Gaziantep, Turkey, with dozens of branches around the world—Güllü is the latest in a long line of pastry chefs that began with his great-grandfather, who first learned to make the sweet, flaky desserts while stopping in the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus on his way back from the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage in 1871.
“In our family, you open your eyes to the world, and the first thing you see is baklava,” Güllü says. “We learn the profession starting from childhood.”
The dessert consists of fine layers of pastry dough, often filled with nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. “Baklava is made by thinning the dough to a fine micro-degree, and by putting 10 or 11 layers on top of each other by hand,” says Güllü. It is not a process conducive to automation. “It’s truly a craft. It requires a long education to be able to roll out baklava dough so thin.”
The origins of baklava date back to ancient times. Around the eighth century B.C.E., people in the Assyrian Empire, which spread across parts of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey, arranged unleavened flatbreads in layers, with chopped nuts in between, to be enjoyed during special events. Centuries later, the Ancient Greek and Roman “placenta cake” (the Latin placenta coming from the Greek word plakous, or “cheese cake,” not the unsavory afterbirth) was a dish consisting of many layers of dough, filled with cheese and honey and flavored with bay leaves. However, the earliest versions of baklava as we know it today came around 500 years ago, during the Ottoman Empire.
“The earliest reference to baklava is in a poem by the mystic Kaygusuz Abdal, who lived in the first half of the 15th century,” writes Mary Isin, an Ottoman food historian, in her book, Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.
Historically, the treat was saved for festive occasions due to the skill required to make it, as well as the high price of key ingredients such as honey, sugar and nuts. In Ottoman times, Baklava was an “almost sacred” part of Ramadan, Isin explains. Beginning in 1520, during this holy month, the Ottoman sultan would famously gift it in massive quantities to his most elite soldiers, the Janissaries, in what was known as the Baklava Procession. “Hundreds of trays of baklava, one for every ten janissaries, were baked in the palace kitchens, tied in cloths to protect them from dust and arrayed in the Second Court,” Isin writes. “Until the Janissary Corps was liquidated in 1826, one and a half months after the Baklava Procession, this event remained a popular annual spectacle.” Ottoman Christians baked baklava for Lent, with some using up to 40 layers of phyllo dough to represent the 40 days of Lent and others using 33 layers to represent the 33 years of Christ’s life. Jews across the empire began serving baklava on the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Purim as well.
Very few other dishes have crossed religions as much as baklava. Perhaps the oldest example of this, Isin writes in an article titled “Adam and Eve’s Wheat Porridge,” is an ancient, boiled wheat dessert known as ashure, or “Noah’s pudding,” prepared slightly differently by each ethno-religious group. “Dishes of boiled wheat sweetened variously with sugar, fruit molasses and dried fruits have for centuries been shared by people of different faiths in Turkey,” Isin says, “eaten in varying forms under different names by Muslims, Christians and Jews.” Still, no other food combines this cross-cultural significance with the enduring popularity of baklava.
Baklava’s reputation as a dish of importance also meant that it was spread far and wide by bureaucrats along trade routes and pilgrimages during the zenith of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. This made the dessert a staple across Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, from Algeria to Afghanistan. As a result, numerous regional variations have emerged over the centuries, often based on locally available ingredients. “Gaziantep is a region famous for pistachios,” Güllü says, “so my great-grandfather used pistachios in his baklava.” Across Turkey, others began to follow suit. In Greece, on the other hand, walnuts became the nut of choice, with cinnamon used to flavor the filling. Armenian “paklava” is filled with walnuts and spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and the Cypriot version often uses almonds as well as walnuts.
The syrup used also varies greatly from country to country. In Algeria, the syrup is typically flavored with orange-blossom water, whereas in Iran, rosewater and cardamom are preferred. A honey and lemon syrup is the go-to in Greece.
Perhaps because of its sweetness, baklava often goes hand in hand with nostalgia and vivid memories of place. Indeed, for my own Greek family, although we live in London, the crunch of the dough and the taste of honey, lemon, cinnamon and walnuts immediately brings us back to summers spent in Greece surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents on the Peloponnesian coast. From its roots along the Mediterranean, it is now enjoyed around the world—from Bengali grocery shops in London’s East End to Middle Eastern bakeries in Latin America to restaurants in New York—by people missing tastes of home and by others all the same. Güllüoglu Baklava now has 48 total branches open worldwide, from Gaziantep to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to New York’s Brighton Beach. In Istanbul, Güllüoglu bakeries make around 6,600 pounds of baklava per day.
Today, baklava forms such an important part of the culinary identity of so many places that people sometimes dispute claims to its origins. The Greek-Turkish debate over its origins is particularly vociferous. In 2012, when President Barack Obama ate baklava at a dinner celebrating Greek Independence Day, rumors spread in the Turkish press that he was taking a side in this culinary conflict. In 2013, much to the dismay of baklava makers from Greece and beyond, the European Union awarded protected status to the Gaziantep variety of baklava from southern Turkey.
However, Efkan Güllü, the master baklava baker from Gaziantep, prefers to look at it another way.
“These are places that have historically been interconnected and have been on the same trade routes,” he says. “But also, more fundamentally, it means that we cook in similar ways.” Their shared histories are reflected in their recipes, with each baker adding new, local flair to an ancient classic, like layers upon layers of sweet pastry.