Pleasure Hunting / A Short History of Burekas

With meat or cheese, square or triangular, this Central Asian food has become a staple of the Israeli diet

Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered

In 1680, the Turkish sultan Mehmet IV passed a law establishing the market price for burekas. He also anchored the obligatory recipe in law: For every half kilo of very thinly stretched dough (todays phyllo dough) 800 grams of mutton and a little onion had to be used. How little? The law doesnt say. What is clear is that anyone caught selling meat burekas containing too much onion, or worse burekas with empty spaces, would be severely punished.

Classic pair. Burekas with a hard boiled egg at Leon and Sons.Credit: Nir Kafri

This charming anecdote reflects the importance of burekas in Turkish culture, but not necessarily the origin of this popular food. If the Turks should suddenly try to claim legal rights to the invention of burekas, the way Israelis and Lebanese clash over a plate of hummus, they will find it difficult to furnish proof. No other food has inspired such a voluminous literature, and there arent many that have sown such confusion among their fans, with dozens of versions from distant places, various types of dough and an array of fillings.

Researchers believe the earliest ancestor of Turkish burekas existed in the Turkestan region of Central Asia long before a national Turkish entity came into being. This is in line with contemporary culinary concepts, which frown on those who try to appropriate traditional cooking techniques or foods for their own ideological and commercial purposes. Foods represent their geographical landscapes, not necessarily any ethnic or political affiliation.

Still, we must include a nice story. The nomadic tribes of Central Asia prepared bread from thin, flat sheets of dough that were baked on the saj, a heavy, concave metal surface placed on top of burning coals. But they would look longingly at the thick bread of city dwellers, who benefited from larger and more sophisticated ovens. In an attempt to imitate the urbanites, the nomads began to create breads and other complex baked goods composed of many layers of thin dough. And the rest is history, or shall we say a collection of tales from the Arabian Nights.

Anyone who has ever tasted genuine burekas has no difficulty understanding the ancient Turks, who adopted burekas and spread their glory throughout their empire. With every bite into the hot pastry a simple-complex work of art fashioned from very thin leaves of dough the power of a fanatic adherence to tradition and the precise recipes for burekas gradually becomes clearer.

What came first, the egg or the bureka?

In Turkeys borek eateries, the pastry is accompanied by tea, cold lemonade or ayran, a yogurt drink diluted with water that was a special favorite of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. In Israel there is no burekas without a hard-boiled egg, a Jewish idea that has become an Israeli custom. In the past, the stretching of very thin sheets of dough and the preparation of burekas in a factory was hard and complex work, and was reserved for festive days, like Shabbat the Queen.

In the Jewish communities that adopted burekas, they were served for a late breakfast on Shabbat, when the men returned from prayer in the synagogue, and the hard-boiled eggs that had been cooked in a slow oven were a natural accompaniment. Hard-boiled eggs, huevos haminados in Ladino or biyad al thabit in the Iraqi dialect, were once placed on the lids of Shabbat dishes in order to be cooked by their heat. Today there is no burekas wagon or bakery without a special pot of brown eggs, and sometimes it seems as though this successful pairing has always existed.

Power food

Tell me what you eat and Ill tell you who you are. That is the assumption underlying the anthropological study of food, a relatively new field in academic research. Food anthropologists study the eating customs and everyday practices related to food and try to learn from them about the ways of the world.

Dr. Nir Avieli of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev began his anthropological-culinary research in Vietnam. For over a decade he has been dividing his time between Israel and Hoi An, a small port town in central Vietnam that serves as a research laboratory for him. Avieli is observing the way in which dealing with food reflects social hierarchies and political questions.

In recent years he has been busy writing a book about the connection between food and power in Israel. Research by him and his students sparked an international conference on food and power in the Mediterranean Basin to be held next month at Ben-Gurion University, with over 30 researchers from Israel and abroad participating. Among other things, three lectures will be devoted to hummus, and there will be a discussion for academicians, chefs and food columnists, entitled And do we have falafel?

Borek to burekasim

The etymology of the word borek is a delicacy for linguists who enjoy adventures that cross borders and languages. The root bur, which means to turn or fold, comes from the ancient Turkish language and today refers to an entire family of filled and folded pastries. The Turkish name apparently traveled a great distance, and seems related to the Mongolian boreg, the Tunisian briq and the Russian piroshki, although these are different foods.
Does the linguistic connection point to a common distant ancestor, or to a food that developed simultaneously in various places and received a similar name? Its hard to know. Whatever the case, this is a fascinating story about the way foods and words wandered all over the world and on the way changed their meanings as well.

The letter samekh (s) that was added to the name of the borek in Hebrew is a plural suffix typical of Ladino, the language of the Jewish communities that immigrated to Turkey and the Balkans after they were expelled from Spain. Burekasim, a word that has become quite legitimate in spoken Hebrew, is a mistaken double plural (the suffix im is the masculine plural in Hebrew).

The chosen: Israels best burekas

Although the geographical area of Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, it was the Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel from Turkey and the Balkan countries in the 1950s who turned burekas into an inseparable part of local food culture. Consequently, the best burekas can still be found in places where those communities settled.

Leon and Sons Burekas

Grandma Julie, who immigrated to Jaffa from Bulgaria in 1948, learned the art of creating phyllo dough from her mother and handed the know-how down to her son Leon and her grandsons Avi and Eli. Special tables with heating elements help open up the balls of dough into very thin sheets, and the taste of the delicate fat-free dough is just marvelous. Also, dont miss the eggplant burekitos made with pie dough.

17 Olei Tzion Street, Jaffa. (03) 683-3123

Original Turkish burekas

The small stand in the heart of the Ramle market was set up in 1957 by Haim Kulos father, who immigrated from Istanbul. Today the grandchildrens generation works here. The original has also opened branches in other places in Israel, but the original wagon and the old-fashioned lemonade siphon are still very charming.

3 Jabotinsky Street, Ramle. (08) 925-5911

Turkish delicacies

Mehmet Kazoldak and members of the Pinhas family bake a classic Turkish borek made with oil and filled with cheese, spinach or eggplant. On the trays you can also find a sweet borek filled with raw tahini and topped with powdered sugar, but the jewel in the crown is the su-borek (water borek), a pan of thin, flat sheets of dough, which Mehmet steams skillfully above a pot of water emitting vapors. They are filled with salty cheese and dill and made without a drop of oil a kind of browned Turkish lasagna with crisp upper layers.

10 Zvi Yishai Street, Yehud. (07) 546-6830

Hazan Burekas

The person who coined the burekas film genre must have had in mind the setting of this place, which is located in a neglected municipal market built in the 1950s. The Hazan family creates the best spinach burekas in Israel, using wild spinach and a perfect dough, and the burekas filled with eggplant that is cooked for hours instead of being grilled, is an unparalleled delicacy.

Ashkenazi Market, Yehud. (03) 536-1649