It was not easy to relate the subtle differences about the techniques and terminology of the different types of thin dough in Turkey. Anything could be called yufka; they range from dried, flat breads made as a winter provision to paper-thin sheets of baklava pastry. It was not easy to explain the many intricacies involved in its usage, let alone explain the world of thin doughs of Turkish cuisine over lunch. Trying to take a break, I promptly asked my lunch companion: What about coming over to Turkey and witnessing the whole thing yourself? This conversation took place last February in New York. That lunch in New York gave birth to an extraordinary panel held last week at Gastro Istanbul. My lunch companion was Nick Malgieri, former executive pastry chef at Windows on the World and current director of baking programs at the Institute of Culinary Education and the author of “Bread” and 10 other cookbooks, including the James Beard-winner “How to Bake” and the IACP/Julia Child Cookbook award-winner “Chocolate.” Nick is now writing a new book on baking.
He was on the verge of omitting a whole chapter on thin doughs until he came across my Gaziantep book and called me to meet and chat over lunch. On my way back to Turkey, I was already imagining coming up with a panel on yufka, the beautiful and versatile dough we always tend to take for granted! Of course no panel on baklava could be without Charles Perry; his legendary article on “The Central Asian Origins of Baklava,” published back in 1990 is still recited by scholars in Turkey. But would he be available to come over all from Los Angeles on such short notice? Would the budget allow for so many overseas visitors? With so many questions flipping through my mind, I proposed to invite these two eminent names along with a few others to the Turkish Cuisine Association, and to my delight, the proposal was very well received.
Charles Perry, is one of the foremost experts in Medieval Arab Cuisine. His books include “Medieval Arab Cookery” (as a co-author) and the newly translated version of the legendary “A Baghdad Cookery Book,” also known as Al-Baghdadi’s “Kitab al-Tabikh,” the only medieval Arabic cookery book known to the English-speaking world. Perry studied Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley and the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in Shimlan, Lebanon.
He is also a long-time contributor to Oxford Symposiums on Food and Cookery. His paper on baklava was also presented and also included in the book “A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East” in 1994 under the title “The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava.”
Having both such important names in the same panel discussing the versatility of yufka was wildly exciting, but we needed more. Two colleagues from Turkey were on my definite list. Priscilla Mary Işın, with her paper titled “Yufka: Food For The Cook’s Imagination,” presented last year at Oxford, and Dr. Özge Samancı for her work on documenting Turkish sweets for the project “Grandma’s Design.”
It was so thrilling to have a panel on the “Versatality of Yufka,” the first of its kind as far as I know, and I was proud to be the moderator. The chemistry on stage was perfect. All examples brought by the panelists contributed another angle to the vast topic, and comments from the ground added much to the discussion. Malgieri’s examples ranging from Austrian Strudel to Sardinian crisp flat bread “Carta da Musica,” all contributed to our perception of the topic. One rural sweet, the Gypsy Baklava/Çingene Baklavası brought to light by one of the audience, İbrahim Canbulat from Safranbolu, exactly matched another example from Düzce, documented by Özge Samancı, and definitely supported the theory of Charles Perry. Apparently we need to do much more to explore, document and learn from regional examples from this beautiful thin though.
The next day, Malgieri and Perry paid visits to a local neighborhood yufka manufacturer and to the celebrated baklava maker Güllüoğlu in Karaköy. Perry was excited. He described holding the sheets of baklava as akin to touching air! I now have a very good feeling that the chapter Malgieri considered canceling will not only make its way back into the book, but eventually evolve into a totally new book after last week’s baklava-börek marathon tour he did in Istanbul and furthermore in Gaziantep.
Recipe of the Week: A Faux Baklava recipe is given by Charles Perry here: http://zesterdaily.com/cooking/faux-baklava-a-sweet-turkish-inspiration/, however it is named by a familiar but pretty unusual name “Karnıyarık”, the ubiquitous eggplant dish meaning “Split Belly”. Perry came across the recipe in a 13th century cookbook, “Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib”, literally meaning “The Link to the Beloved”.