The Ottoman Empire, whose hub was once modern day Turkey, once ruled a territory which spanned southeastern Europe, North Africa, and southwestern Asia from 1299-1923. Amongst various contributions to the world, the Ottomans left a vibrant and rich cuisine as part of their legacy. There is no doubt that Ottoman cuisine not only influenced modern Turkish cuisine, but also Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisine as well. From the food culture of the Ottoman Empire emerged the sweet and texturally complex desert known as baklava.
As with any great work of architecture the sum is only as great as its parts. The construction of a baklava is in many ways a work of art, something to behold and appreciate before chomping it down with a hot cup of tea. This rich yet airy pastry starts with buttered layers of filo pastry which forms a crunchy landscape of goodness when baked. In between the flaky layers of filo pastry are chopped nuts. Many of my favorite versions have pistachio nuts because they have a very distinct and aggressive flavor, and are quite common throughout the Middle East. Unlike most deserts, baklava does not use any refined sugar but rather, is sweetened naturally using generous amounts of honey which gently glazes the pastry taking it to celestially sweet heights. The honey soaks into the pastry and the result is a drenched pastry which still retains its crunch and form brilliantly.
There are as many different varieties of baklava as there are countries in the Middle East and Balkans. Some versions have become quite famous with specific ways and additions they have made to the baklava. In Iran, the baklava is drier than the Turkish version, and cardamom and rosewater are often used. In Croatia and Bosnia it is normally only eaten during Ramadan and Christmas, and has more nuts than other versions. In Albania baklava is the most popular desert and they tend to use walnuts as opposed to almonds or pistachios. In Armenia they add cinnamon and cloves to their baklava, and their nut of choice is the almond. In Lebanon one will find many varieties of baklava with dried fruit, such as apricots and cherries.
According to the New Zealand government census of 2006, 0.9% of the country’s population was of Middle Eastern descent. Compared to our nearest neighbor Australia, our population of Middle Eastern people is far less in number. Perhaps this is why I feel compelled to mention Alamir Bakery in Miramar. This Lebanese restaurant serves up some of the best kebabs in town, not to mention their authentic thinly crusted Lebanese pizzas which every Kiwi will fall in love with after trying. Best of all, is their homemade baklava made simply with nuts and honey, and it is only 2.50…it is hard to beat that price!
Baklava is a gift from the lexicon of Ottoman cuisine which has spread to many parts of the world as the most common desert on many menus. There is an art to making baklava, and anyone with a good palette can tell the difference between store bought and homemade baklava. This rich desert is commonly eaten in small portions yet leaves you feeling quite satisfied. If you are looking for a desert other than the tried and true Pavlova, try baklava for a completely different and natural kind of sweet.