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Baklavology

June 27, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

In current affairs, Azerbaijan stands for bloody ethnic conflict. In food history, it stands for baklava.

The story starts out in the steppes of Central Asia 1,000 years ago. As they had for centuries, nomads speaking Turkish languages were living mostly on dairy products, porridge and tortilla-like flat breads. Since they were always traveling with their flocks and had to carry all their cooking gear on horseback, they had no ovens.

But for some reason, they were tired of tortillas (maybe they'd had enough contact with settled people to envy their thick oven breads), so they started making their thinnest tortilla, yuvka, into a thick product by layering it. An 11th century dictionary of Turkic dialects defined yuvka as both "thin flat bread" and "pleated or folded bread." Even today, some Turkish peoples, such as the Tatars, stack up buttered yuvkas to make a sort of cake.

When Turkish-speaking people invaded Azerbaijan, they at last had access to ovens, and they started baking their stacked yuvka cake with nuts between the layers, calling it baklava ("a bundle"). This pastry, named Baku-style baklava, is still made in Azerbaijan. It consists of eight layers of noodle paste and seven layers of nuts. The idea of stretching yuvka dough paper-thin to make filo came centuries later, probably in Istanbul.

The Azerbaijanis are so enamored of this chewy sort of baklava (though they now also make the familiar strudel-like kind) that they even make it from rice flour. For Sheki-style baklava, named after one of the oldest cities in the country, they dribble rice batter on a warm griddle to make little doilies that they use like layers of filo. It tastes like a cross between baklava and puffed rice.

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