The blend of cultures and flavors that is seen across the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean regions is a product of ancient trade routes, proximity, and, ultimately, conquest. That same mix gave birth to baklava, the crisp, syrupy dessert whose exquisiteness derives from the kitchens of sumptuous Ottoman palaces in 15th- and 16th-century Istanbul. The art of making baklava dates back to the nomadic Turks of the 11th century. Between the dessert's butter-drenched layers of phyllo dough is the taste of fallen empires—Assyrian, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Mongol, and Ottoman.
While the flavor of baklava is different in every country that makes it—Greece, the Levant, Iran, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and beyond—the debate over who is the rightful owner of baklava ignores the dessert's endurance, which is perhaps its most distinctive trait. For this reason, the more important question is: Who makes it best?
Gaziantep, located in southeast Turkey at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, is the pistachio capital of the country, and the third largest producer in the world. Coincidentally, Gaziantep is home to some of the world's the best baklava. The city holds more than 100 baklava shops dutifully supplying 90 percent of the baklava in Turkey. Among the inexhaustible array of baklava shops, there is Cevdet Gullu's 160-year-old Elmacı Pazarı Güllüoğlu Baklava boutique.
Elmacı Pazarı is located in Gaziantep's old downtown district on the historic Silk Road. Cevdet's great-grandfather opened the first of the baklava shops that now make up the Güllüoğlu empire, operating branches across Turkey and the world. At first glance, Elmacı Pazarı seems inconspicuously nestled among the bazaars of the old city. But for the baklava connoisseur, and the large majority of Turkish tourists, Cevdet's baklava boutique is an aromatic beacon of pure decadence.
"Each branch has the name of the operator to prove quality," explained Cevdet as I gorged on 220 grams of six different kinds of baklava placed in a small tin plate before me. The Güllüoğlu shops are owned by 13 relatives, who pass down the craft from one generation to the next. Gaziantep alone houses a handful of Güllüoğlu stores, but Cevdet is among the few who can attest to the intricacy of making the 40-thlayered phyllo dough pastry.
"You must be a master as a child," said Cevdet, who learned the craft at a young age from his grandfather. "The difference is in the hands," he admitted in the style of a true craftsman. However, the key to the best baklava is not only about the hands, but the ingredients as well. "Butter is the secret," Cevdet added conspiratorially.
The façade of the small production facility where Cevdet's chefs prepare baklava indicates none of the elaborate processes that happen within. Inside of the laboratory-like kitchen, clouds of flour particles can be glimpsed in the air. A team of around 25 men, all dressed in white, are busy at their stations.
On the top floor, men prepare the pastry, which consists of durum wheat flour, water, eggs, and salt. The dough is then rolled into paper-thin sheets; it first passes through a dough sheeter before being further rolled out by hand with thin rolling pins, about the size of baseball bats. The thinner the layers of dough, the better the baklava. The task is so representative of the craft that it is almost sacrosanct. To prove their expertise, the chefs placed a Turkish flag on the table and piled the thin layers of dough on top. The white star and crescent remained visible under the transparent dough. Cevdet grinned proudly next to me.
Baklava's crunchiness is the result of 40 sheets of this paper-thin dough. In Christian tradition, baklava is part of Easter festivities, and the 40 sheets represent the 40 days of Lent, evidence of the dessert's cross-cultural origins. The men busily knead, roll, and sprinkle dough with butter, taking small breaks in the hazy kitchen. A radio plays lulling music somewhere in the kitchen, and the pungent aroma of fresh milk, cream, and butter overpowers my senses.
To construct the baklava, the first 15 layers of dough are placed in a baking dish and brushed with butter. Like a hawk, Mehmet—Elmacı Pazarı's master chef—watches over the men and steps in when needed. At a quiet table, one of the men sprinkles pistachios intently over a layer of clotted cream. Once the filling is spread, the rest of the layers of dough are piled up on top, and the baklava is near completion—but not before the pastry is ladled with butter, resembling a fountain of liquid gold. Mehmet, the factory's Willly Wonka, lurks on a nearby corner.
One of the factory's young apprentices carries the trays of baklava to the stone oven on the top floor. The baking pan is first placed on a rotating furnace, so that the bottom pastry can cook. Mehmet then adds syrup, which consists of white sugar, water, and lemon juice. At this point, the baklava is placed inside a stone oven, where it is left to acquire its golden brown color. Once the baklava is cooked, it is cooled over cold water.
The same process is repeated throughout the day. Some baklava is taken to Cevdet's boutique, while the rest is packaged and sent to shops across the country. During bayram, the name for the Eid festivities in Turkey, tons of baklava are sold.
The last Ottoman sultan, Vahideddin, offered baklava at the lunch at Yıldız Palace on April 30, 1920, shortly before the fall of the empire. Today, the dessert is enjoyed at home, among family and friends, during the feast of Eid, weddings, funerals, or breakfast. No longer a dish reserved for the Ottoman court, it can be as varied as the hands that make it. Iranians make baklava with almonds infused with narcissus petals, while Greeks add cinnamon to a walnut mixture. Gaziantep relies on its emerald pistachios.
If you ask me, baklava belongs to Gaziantep, but it's ultimately in the mouth of the beholder to decide.
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in September 2015.