Hikayat Havenly: Burek, A Culinary & Cultural Epitome

burek

Before moving to New Haven in 2014, head chef and co-founder Nieda Abbas lived in several countries and was exposed to diverse cuisines. Yet to this day, one of the dishes which has most stood out to her is burek, a mouthwatering pastry stuffed with flavorful fillings that originates from Turkey. 

However, Nieda has not been the only one enchanted by this dish. Burek (or börek, as written in Turkish) can trace its beloved roots back to before the seventh century. Ethnographic research strongly suggests that this dish was invented by nomadic Turks in Central Asia, and later evolved in complexity while these groups migrated westward to Anatolia in the Middle Ages. Eventually, it would become one of the most significant and ancient elements of Turkish cuisine, as well as a popular staple during the time of the Ottoman Empire. 

As affirmed by historians, burek can be considered as the "culinary epitome of Ottoman culture: a taste of poetic refinement, courtly elegance and timeless urbanity." Initially only available to those of the higher classes, burek would later become widely-available, and a favorite among Ottoman people of all classes.

For instance, burek was very popular during the reign of Sultan Mehmed IV, a period during which Turkey reached the height of its territorial expansion in Europe. Often, after finishing their meetings in Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman imperial council, the Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn, would gather for lavish six-course lunches. Always, at the center of these elaborate meals, was burek. 

Other rulers were also fascinated by burek. The Mongolian Empire first encountered this dish during the time of the Ilkhanate, when the Mongols had successfully invaded and occupied Anatolia. The Empire also came to love this dish, though they often altered it to suit their own culturally-distinct palates. Several recipes for burek were even included in 飲膳正要 (Yinshan Zhengyao or 'Dietary Principles'), a famous culinary treatise written in 1300 and presented to the Great Khan by court dietician Hu Sihui. 

Eventually, as the Ottoman Empire grew in size, power and influence, its culture — and by extension, its foods — spread across the world. This process was also facilitated by improved technologies and increased globalization. Today, different versions of burek can be found in the various cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire, such as those of the Balkans, the Levant, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Europe. 

Chef Nieda lived in Turkey for 9 years, where she had also managed an informal hair salon. Cooking was an activity that allowed Nieda to further connect with local culture and bond with friends. After quickly learning the recipe, she began to transform it so that it would carry a unique it-factor characteristic of her dishes.

In essence, burek is a pastry made with layers of phyllo, a thin flaky dough that is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. This type of dough is also used to make baklava. In between these layers of dough, one can find different fillings. 

Burek is extremely versatile, and has evolved much throughout the centuries. While making burek, Nieda would often experiment accordingly. This was the case when it came to the filling. Popular fillings for burek include meat, cheese, leafy greens (for example, spinach) and potatoes. Meat-based burek is the most popular, and the one that Nieda personally most preferred. 

As she tested with different types of fillings, Nieda realized that adding cheese complemented the meat recipe very well. Ground meat tends to be delicate and soft, often lacking a firm structural integrity that would remain contained within layers of dough. Adding cheese allowed Nieda to create a pastry that wouldn't fall apart with one touch — though the incredible taste ended up being an additional bonus! 

Burek has been a culinary witness to centuries of expansion, migration and conquest. This wholesome meal has found its way onto the tables of generations, and can find its way onto your table, too, if you visit Havenly! Try our irresistible savory burek for a warm taste of culture and history. 

This post is part of Hikayat Havenly, a series of food highlights that tell a story of immigration and resilience.