(Roughly) Daily

“I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day”*…

The social centrality of sweets…

Each country finds its own way to get its sugar fix. The crackly burnished sugar on top of a pot of crème brûlée in France. The grainy buttery sugar of a slab of Scottish tablet. The caramelised, milky sugar of dulce de leche, slathered on toast or pancakes. The intensely processed sugar of the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens the chocolate drizzle, ice cream and brownie chunks of an American sundae.

A taste for sweetness makes sense in evolutionary terms: sugary foods are a quick and easy source of energy. But despite its universal appeal, says Anissa Helou, a Lebanese-Syrian author and chef (whose surname means “sweet”), Middle Easterners seem to be particularly enamoured by sugar. Five of the top 20 countries that consume the most sugar per person are in the Middle East.

Why is the region so enchanted by sweet stuff? Sugar was widely available in the Middle East long before that was true in the West. Helou also points to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, which in other countries is used as a celebratory treat, luxury or distraction (though the ban on drinking is observed to varying degrees across the Muslim world). If you can’t do shots in Dubai, you can belly up to the milkshake bar and get a high from guzzling a chocolatey ice cream concoction. After dinner, sweetened tea takes the place of an aperitif. Juice and sugar-cane stalls replace pubs and bars on street corners.

Across the Middle East and Turkey, bakery shelves heave with a variety of syrup-soaked pastries. You can find diamonds of basbousa (which in Arabic sweetly translates as “just a kiss”), a cake made from semolina and drenched with syrup scented with rose or orange blossom. Coils of m’hanncha, an almond-packed roll of pastry, curled to look like a sleeping snake. Kunafa, shredded pastry filled with a creamy cheese or nuts and doused in yet more floral syrup. Znoud el-sit, which literally means “women’s upper arms”, crunchy, plump little cigars of filo pastry, stuffed with cream, fried and steeped in syrup or honey. But the best known by far, at least in the rest of the world, are sheets of fine filo pastry filled with nuts and bathed in syrup and butter: baklava.

Versions of layered, nutty pastries may have been made as early as the eighth century BC by the Assyrians, but it was the Ottomans who perfected the sticky glory of baklava. The imperial kitchens of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul were said to have turned out trays of the stuff in the 15th century. Most notably, on the 15th day of Ramadan, when the sultan would visit the hirka-i-serif (a relic believed to be part of the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad), baklava was given to his janissaries, an elite group of soldiers. It was a food of occasion, so much so that even today there’s a common saying in Turkey: “I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day.” (Boxes of baklava regularly feature as carry-on luggage at airports in Turkey, especially around the holidays, both religious and secular.)

In 2013 the European Commission bestowed a “protected designation-of-origin” status on baklava from Gaziantep, a southern Turkish city – the first Turkish product to be recognised in this way. Bakers across Greece, the Middle East and beyond may challenge the Turks’ claims on baklava, but whether their versions pre-date the reach of the Ottomans or are the result of their expansion, baklava pops up everywhere from Morocco to Iran. The shapes differ, the nuts vary and the spices change but the syrupy richness does not.

Even without the sultans and their acolytes, baklava still evokes a sense of ceremony. Feast days, religious or otherwise, to celebrate both the living and the dead, are occasions for baklava. So, too, are visits by friends. Claudia Roden, a grandee of Middle Eastern cooking born to an Egyptian-Jewish family, writes that baklava (along with other sweets) is associated, for her, with “feelings of well-being, warmth and welcome, of giving and receiving, of crowds of people smiling, kissing, hugging and showering hospitality”. Whereas Christians often forgo foodstuffs such as sugar during the 40 days of Lent, Ramadan brings a nightly feast in which sweets play an important role. In Turkey, Eid al-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, is known as Seker Bayrami, the feast of sweets…

In the absence of alcohol, sweet treats unite the Middle East: “Go nuts: the multilayered history of baklava,” from Josie Delap (@josiedelap) in @1843mag— with a recipe!

* traditional Turkish saying

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As we lick our lips (and our fingers), we might spare a thought for Chapin Aaron Harris; he died on this date in 1860. Trained as a physician, he specialized in matters of the mouth. He helped found the American Society of Dental Surgeons (ASDS), the first national dental organization in the U.S., and founded the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (now the University of Maryland School of Dentistry), the first dental college in the U.S. (and, it’s believed, the world).

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