It’s the dessert of people who once lived alongside each other, proof that above everything else, food can unite us.
On March 25, 2021, Greece marked 200 years of independence from the Ottoman empire. And a celebratory feast of Greek classics was enjoyed at many a Hellene’s table around the world, with an oh-so-sweet tray of baklava featured as dessert. Though it’s ubiquitous in ζαχαροπλαστεια (bakeries) across Greece and is claimed by many Greeks as a national dish, this nut-filled treat of layered, ultra-fine phyllo dough interspersed with nuts and spices and soaked in sticky, oozing honey is not very nationalistic at all. The dish used to toast to Greek independence, along with an ouzo-spiked coffee, reveals the complex history of a nation still very much tied to its Ottoman heritage.
In the heart of Athens at Syntagma Square, Karaköy Güllüoglu serves up Turkish baklava in small, bite-sized squares filled with pistachio and soaked in a dense syrup of rose water. Baklava of the Turkish kind can be found all over the city. Its Greek variation is a doorstep wedge of a baklava, usually filled with walnuts and honey and a denser phyllo. Where the cardamom-infused Turkish bites drip with syrup and can be gobbled down in one bite, the Balkanised cinnamon and clove-seasoned Greek baklava takes a fork, sharp knife (often missing when it’s served to you), and a little commitment to get into it.
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Walnut, almond, pistachio, hazelnut, pomegranate, date, fig, prune, apricot, apple, orange, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, mastic, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, rosewater, honey—these are all variations of what baklava might consist of. Each its own indicator of the origins of baklava—ones that span way before and beyond territorial borderlines that were marked out in the last century. The very variations of Greece’s national dessert nod to the nation’s rich, multicultural history that is still not free of its Ottoman ties.
What Baklava Reveals About Greek-Turkish Relations
As recently as 2006, the sweet treat stoked tensions between Greece and Turkey when Greek Cypriots chose baklava to represent them in the Cafe Europe cultural initiative. This was against the political backdrop of Turkey aspiring to become an EU member state.
Clashes over the origins of baklava betray the fraught history of Greece and Turkey. Constantinople fell from the Byzantines (Greek Orthodox Christians) to the Ottomans in 1453, yet even today, Greeks refuse to refer to the city as Istanbul. In 2020, as Turkey’s President Erdogan announced that the iconic Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia would be used as a mosque, Greece went into a national day of mourning.
To Greeks celebrating 200 years of independence, the weight of the Ottoman Empire still hangs heavy. While under Ottoman rule, ethnic Greeks didn’t share the same rights as their Muslim neighbors. While they could worship freely, they couldn’t bear arms and in a court of law, a Muslim’s word was always accepted over the word of a Christian. Greek Orthodox Christians could neither marry a Muslim woman nor openly renounce Islam. Many were also required to give up their strongest, most intelligent children to be converted to Islam and serve the empire as a soldier or civil servant.
These tensions led to the 1821-1832 revolution that would see Greece declare its independence from the Ottoman Empire, but baklava existed in the region way before Greece shook off the shackles of the empire.
The Birth of Baklava
Before borders were drawn up and a great population exchange of Christians in modern Turkey and Muslims in modern Greece took place as a result of the 1922’s Treaty of Lausanne, the land now known as Greece was populated by Romioi (ethnic Greeks categorized by their Greek Orthodox Religion), Spanish Jews (mainly settled in the area of Thessaloniki following their expulsion from Spain in 1492), Armenians, Muslims, Albanians, Romanians, and tribal communities of the Balkans. During the Ottoman reign, ethnic Greeks lived across Asia Minor and onwards toward the Caucasus, many of them working as traders across the empire that spanned from Algiers in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east.
It was Greek merchants that were credited for bringing the earliest iterations of baklava to the west from the Middle East, where the wealthiest Assyrians (based in modern Lebanon and Egypt) were filling layers of unleavened dough with nuts and honey, baking it in wood-fired ovens as far back as the 8th Century BCE.
Traveling between Greece, Turkey, and the Levant, Greek traders took baklava with them but it was the Arabs and “Hellenes” or later, “Romioi,” who put their own stamp on the dessert. In the east of the Ottoman empire, baklava was drenched in cardamom, rose water, and syrup, with pistachio being the favored nut as far as modern-day Iran. In the west, the Balkan communities of what is now northern Greece used cloves, cinnamon, and walnuts.
The origins of baklava are as convoluted as the history of Greece and the Greeks themselves. While the word “baklava” is thought to be Turkish and evidence supports that trays of baklava were made for Ramadan every year in a ceremony at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Armenians lay claim to the coinage from their words “bakh” (lent) and “halvah” (sweet).
To add further confusion, “phyllo”—the ultra-fine pastry used for the dessert—is the Greek word for “leaf.” It’s widely asserted that it was the Greeks that mastered the technique of creating the very thin layers of phyllo that make up modern-day baklava but it was Serbian cooks in Belgrade during the 19th century that took things a step further and became famous for rolling their baklava sheets to tissue-thin proportions.
Regardless of if it was a cook in the Topkapi Palace of Istanbul, an Armenian housewife, a Greek merchant, or a Serbian pastry chef that created the first baklava as we know it, the dessert’s origins are within the Ottoman empire. Who’s to say that the cook in the Topkapi palace (now modern Turkey) was not an ethnic Greek? Or that the Armenian housewife was not married to a Greek merchant? Those living within the Ottoman empire all lived alongside each other, allowing for a blending of culinary traditions, along with many others. It’s no coincidence that “Turkish” and “Greek” coffee are almost indistinguishable.
Rather than being of one nation, baklava is a distillation of cultures, traditions, and ethnicities in a single dessert. It is not Turkish. Neither is it Greek. Instead, it is a symbol of the power that food has to cross boundaries, borders, religions, and beliefs. Baklava is not the dessert of a nation. It’s the dessert of people who once lived alongside each other, proof that above everything else, food can unite us.