A dessert that is as enigmatic as it is delicious, baklava is a sweetened honey and nut mixture sandwiched between several layers of flaky phyllo (or filo) dough which is baked to a golden brown. Between these layers, a debate has been raging for several centuries: is baklava a Greek dessert or a Turkish one? There are strong claims on both sides. But is there an answer to this sweet mystery? Below is a history of what is known (and not known) about this nutty, gooey, crispy delicacy.
Baklava: What's in a Name?
There is no debate that "baklava" (alternatively, "baklave") is a Turkish word. Its etymology probably comes from the pre-16th century Turkish words "baklağı" and "baklağu." These in turn may have been derived from the Mongolian "bayla-va," which is itself a borrowed word from proto-Turkish (just as the word "baklava" in English is a borrowed work from modern the Turkish language). There is evidence that the word may have been derived from the Persian "bāqlabā" or the Arabic "baqlāwah." While the etymology of the word points to Turkish origins, the dessert's composition and preparation point westward and even further into the past.
Regardless of the name, how it is pronounced, or its etymology, this treat can now be found all over the world with regional variations in places like Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Lebanon, and Africa, according to "The Culture Map." Historical records about baklava date it to the time of the Turkic-Islamic Ottoman Empire, which flourished from 1299 to 1922. By 1453, the Ottomans had brought the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire to an end by conquering the city of Constantinople. This also brought the Ottoman Turks into contact with the Mediterranean cultures of Greece, Crete, Cyprus, North Africa, and Italy. Below is a photographic depiction of Turkish Baklava, or commonly called Fistikli Baklava.
Baklava: A Fascinating Window into the Past
The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition confirms that "baklava" first appeared in the English language in 1650. At this point in history, the Ottoman Empire was the dominant power in what would become Turkey, Greece, Iraq, Iran, and the Levant. If baklava is Ottoman, it is difficult to know where in the empire it originated. By 1560, the capital was already Constantinople, the former seat of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman and Byzantine Empires. As a result, a large percentage of citizens in the city were Greek, even during the time of the Ottomans. Therefore, the dessert could have come from Greek Ottomans.
The layered pastry aspect of baklava also deserves investigation. According to the book A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, bread with several, flaky layers was popular among Mongolo-Turkic nomads. However, the term for it, which is "phyllo" (now commonly spelt "filo") is distinctly Greek and is related to the ancient word for "leaves."
The Argument for an Ancient Greek Origin
A strikingly similar pastry called "gastrin" (which simply means "cake") was popular in Ancient Greece and Rome. The Romans, in case of point, called it the "Cretan sweet," indicating that it may have originated with the Bronze Age Minoan civilization, which existed between 2600 and 1100 BC. Unfortunately, there is no intact historical record of Gastrin's origins.
There are also some differences between the two recipes. Gastrin called for tartar and earthier flavours, such as black pepper and lemon. The filling was made not just with honey and nuts, but also with "hepsera," (Ancient Greek for "boiled"), a sweetener derived from grapes. Also, the phyllo dough itself contained roasted sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Still, the structure and general composition were the same: a sweet syrup with crushed nuts sandwiched between several crispy, golden, leaf-thin layers of dough. Today, the sweet syrup derived from grapes (or other fruits like mulberries) is called "petimezi" (alternatively "petimezi"), derived from the Turkish word for "molasses."
The Argument for a Roman Origin
A type of pastry called "placenta" (which in Roman times meant "cake") is attested as early as the 3rd century BC by Cato the Elder in his philosophical treatise on agriculture, a text that includes the ancient recipe. According to Cato, "placenta" was baked with a filling that included dried cheese, bay leaves, and honey. While it was obviously a sweet confection, the lack of nuts and the presence of cheese cast some doubt on whether this was the true baklava origin. The image below shows what this dish looks like:
Another problem is in the name itself. The Latin word placenta comes from the Greek word "plakous," which means "something flat and broad." This would not be a problem, except that "plakous" was the name for a treat similar to "placenta," with layered flour, honey, and cheese.
Can there be a consensus on the source of baklava? Is it a Greek dessert, Roman anomaly, or Turkish cake? The truth is, one can never know, but the etymology of the words explored herein draw a line through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Turkish cultures. Perhaps baklava is a Greek dessert with Ottoman influence that evolved from the pastries of Ancient Greece and Rome.
It is of note that, according to "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food in America, baklava today refers to any phyllo-based dessert exported from the Middle East. This makes it even harder to pinpoint where and how it was created. However, it does reveal that baklava is the result of communication and collaboration across many cultures in the Mediterranean and Near East. In that way, it is both an international food and a symbol of mutual understanding, taste, and tradition.
Baklava's True Cultural Origins
One may never know exactly where baklava came from. However, it is safe to say baklava evolved from several sweet confections over more than two thousand years of cooking. The truth is, the baklava origin story is complex and multi-cultural, with influences from the ancient Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Turks, and Ottomans, to name just a few. Even today, this dish continues to evolve with variations in shape and ingredients. Baklava remains, as it was in the distant past, a delicacy that brings people together.