The Long, Contested History of Baklava

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In the Mediterranean and the Middle East, baklava is ubiquitous. Though it can be made with many variations, the essential parts are the same: paper-thin layers of phyllo pastry, a sweet filling made with chopped nuts, and a coating of honey or syrup. This delectable dessert has been around for centuries, but its origins are nebulous, which has caused disagreements around the world. Through the years, various countries have feuded over who “owns” baklava, with most people siding with either Greece or Turkey. But, as it turns out, both of these countries (and more!) have a long history of making and eating baklava.

Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome

Baklava’s oldest ancestor is believed to be the Ancient Roman placenta cake, a dessert made of alternating thin pastry sheets and layers of cheese and honey. The cake was flavored with bay leaves, baked, and drenched in honey, much like modern-day baklava, and could be found in Ancient Rome as early as the 2nd century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). Interestingly, some historians believe that placenta is actually derived from the Greek plakous, a word that meant “thin, layered flatbreads,” and some historians have noted that the recipe for placenta, found in Cato’s De Agri Cultura (a Latin composition dating back to 160 B.C.E)  is written in the Greek style. Because of this, scholars have speculated that it, and many other Roman recipes, were simply copied or adapted from Greek cookbooks. This would make sense, as Rome was heavily influenced by many Greek customs and ideals. Others have found supporting evidence for this theory in the text of Homer’s Odyssey, which references a baklava-like pastry. This Greek pastry may have evolved into the Roman placenta, which later became baklava.

 

However, critics have pointed out that Cato was highly anti-Greek, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to include a Greek recipe in his published essays. Because of this, many believe that placenta actually has a Latin origin and was not derived from a Greek recipe! So, though there’s strong evidence to suggest that baklava originated with the Ancient Greeks and was consumed in the form of placenta in Ancient Roman times, this has not been proven beyond doubt and is still a topic of controversy.

Turkey and the Ottoman Empire

Other historians believe that baklava in its modern form owes its lineage to medieval Turkish traditions. Nomadic Turks in the 11th century C.E. (Common Era) were known for making layered bread. This fact, plus the appearance of the word yuvgha (which means “pleated or folded bread”) in 11th-century Turkish vocabulary, is treated as evidence that baklava originated in Turkey. However, these early nomads didn’t always have access to ovens, so they weren’t making sweet baked pastries. Instead, their yuvgha was a thin, unleavened flatbread made in a pan over a fire. It is believed that this practice of layering yuvgha later evolved into baklava.

 

Actually, baklava in the form that we love and recognize is often attributed to Suleiman the Magnificent, a 16th-century sultan who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 until his death in 1566. Because the Ottoman Empire was constantly expanding its borders, the military was a very important asset. During Ramadan, Suleiman the Magnificent started a tradition of presenting each Janissary regiment with trays of baklava for the soldiers. After the presentation, the troops would march back to their barracks in a parade known as the Baklava Procession. The following day, the soldiers marched back to the palace to return the empty trays. The baklava that lent its name to this ceremony was likely similar to the baklava that is commonly eaten today: sweet, made with many thin layers, and consumed as a delicacy. This makes sense, as the imperial kitchens at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, where the sultans resided, would have had access to the time and resources necessary to craft delicate, finely-layered baklava.

 

Need more evidence to believe that baklava came from Turkey? Well, the truth may be in the etymology of the word itself. Some people believe that the word “baklava” actually came from Mongolia, where the root “bayla-” means “to tie, wrap, or pile up.” In this case, the word uses the “pile up” definition to refer to the act of layering the phyllo. However, this word is actually borrowed from Turkish! So, the “bakla-” in “baklava” may have Turkish origins.

Persia

So, that answers the question of baklava’s origin, right? Wrong! Though some evidence suggests baklava originated in Ancient times, then evolved in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, there are still scholars that believe baklava is a product of Persia.

 

The earliest written record of Persian baklava appears in a 13th-century cookbook that was based on 9th-century Persian recipes. This book included a recipe for a dessert of almond paste wrapped in incredibly thin pastry and drenched in honey. Sound familiar? Later, Middle Eastern bakers adapted the Turkish practice of layering these ingredients, which, again, may have resulted in the baklava that we know and love today.

 

One more thing: the suffix “-va” of “baklava” is actually Persian, not Turkish! So, Persia may have at least as strong a claim to baklava as Greece or Turkey.

So, as it stands, we don’t really know where baklava came from. To us here at Jungle Jim’s, the most likely story is that baklava was simply an evolution of a bread dish that was easy, simple, and accessible for many people to make. As empires fell, merged together, and grew into new countries, it’s no wonder that traditions from Greece, Rome, Byzantine, and Persia blended together to create baklava as we know it. After all, food has no borders.

If you’re anything like us, reading all about baklava has no doubt resulted in an intense baklava craving! Well, here’s what to do: visit our bakery for fresh-made baklava or visit our Greece section in the International Department to find Greek baklava. Plus, make sure to stop by our Discoveries at the Jungle kiosk near the front of either store to discover more Greek foods. If you take any photos of the foods you try, make sure to post them online and tag us!

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