It is 5am in Istanbul and the sun has just started to illuminate the street I am walking on. It is too early to find an open bakery in Kadıköy's harbour and I'm too tired so there is no chance of me waiting for one to open. I'm dreaming of food but there doesn't seem to be any opportunity of eating soon, which makes the world a bit of a darker place for me. . Still, I hope that something good can happen because it is Istanbul, the city where amazing things happen. Eventually, Istanbul doesn't disappoint me. A food seller appears on the street and shouts something which I don't understand as I don't know Turkish at that moment. Yet, I see he carries something which is full of food. Now, there're two possibilities; I go home and sleep with my empty stomach or I would try the food which this tiny Turkish man sells. As you can expect, I choose the second option and approach him full of excitement. What a great surprise that he sells something hot, sweet, and something without meat! Above all, a really big portion is only 4TL. What could be better for a hungry vegetarian! It was simply fabulous! What he was selling was “börek” and from then on it has been one of my favourite Turkish foods!
Börek is a common Turkish term for filled pastries. It is simply delicious food and a great option for vegetarians. For the Turks it is breakfast with tea, lunch with ayran, meze for dinner, and always a snack anytime during the day. In other words börek is a frequently eaten food in daily Turkish life. Actually, it can be found all over the areas of the Ottoman Empire including Middle Eastern and Balkan countries. Some people link the invention of börek to the Ottomans, some to Bugra Khan, a ruler of Eastern Turkistan, and some link it to the Persians. I guess the best to indicate its popularity is to say that “börek” dominates the Turco-Iranian cuisine of Western Asia. It is in fact so that börek really took form during the Ottoman Empire. Consider that the most prominent börek baker held one of the most important positions in the Ottoman imperial household. Since then, it has been an invariant part of traditional Turkish cuisine.
Depending on where you are and who is the cooker, börek may come in many different shapes such as bundles, rolls, rounds, squares, etc. and different fillings such as eggplant, ground meat, potato, spinach, and a variety of cheeses. What they have in common is that authentic börek is made from yufka, exotic and very thin dough made from wheat flour, water and salt. Now you may think that making yufka is something easy to do but that's completely wrong. To be honest, it's an art in itself which has need for great skill as well as patience. As it is not a work for everybody, a great number of Turkish women buy it from the “yufkacı” (yufka shop).
The skills of börek making are usually handed down from generation to generation and authentic börek making is really a fantastic process. I had the possibility to make börek with a local woman and as I'm from Italy it was quite an exotic experience. To me, after passing the most difficult part, which is making yufka, it's just fun and actually so easy to do! As it usually happens someone should declare the intension of börek making to start the work. The relatives and friends are invited to the place where the börek making event takes place which can be a house, garden or garage. The most important person, or let's say the boss in this börek making group, is the one who can roll oklava, a wooden rolling pin, delicately. After the dough is ready, it is left to sit for between 45 minutes to an hour which is the time for Turkish coffee and gossip. After that the boss sits on the floor, divides the dough into small pieces, and shapes them into little rounds which is not bigger than a tennis ball. Then, she places the dough on the table, takes up the wooden oklava, and rolls out the small flat piece of dough until it is approximately 60cm in diameter. After the sheets are ready, they need to be filled with anything you want; eggplant, ground meat, potato, spinach, and cheese. Since then the only thing to do is to bake or to fry. Turkish people use “saç”, a round shaped hot iron plate, to bake yufka.
As I'm Italian and a person who has a huge interest in food, I can say that the most similar food to börek in Italy is lasagne. Still, there's a big differences between two dishes. Lasagne is made with a few pasta sheets stuffed with besciamella, made with milk, butter, and nutmeg, and ragù, a meat-based sauce cooked with tomatoes, and it has a process of cooking similar to börek. Anyway the result is very different. As there's no yufka, or if there is it is very difficult to find,in Italy, there's no way to eat börek. However, something very similar is possible if you use phyllo pastry replacing yufka. Still, be aware of the fact that yufka makes the börek flaky which phyllo pastry does not.
Börek is a food that you can eat anytime during the day and find it in every home, pastry shop, and bakeries. There're also börek stores almost everywhere in Istanbul. If you want to sit in a börek store, it's common to ask one portion, which is almost 200gr, of the kind that you want. Börek stores usually offers ıspanak böreği, stuffed with spinach but sometimes a mix of spinach and white cheese, peynirli börek, stuffed with only white cheese, su böreği or water börek, boiled Cheese börek, kıymalı börek, stuffed with ground meat and this is the only one which is unsuitable for vegetarians, and kürt böreği, my favourite one, the sweet version of börek that consumed with powder sugar sprinkled on it. As there's no filling inside of this börek, it sometimes can be called sade börek as well. By the way if you don't want to sit in a börek store, they'll cut börek you order into small pieces and give it to you in a box so you can take it with you.
There's no way to know for sure exactly how many different type of börek exist in Turkey. Among all I'll just tell you about a few most popular ones which you can find easily in Istanbul.
Su Böreği: You can call this börek as Turkish cheese lasagne. The way you cook them is the same and they are different because of the different fillings. Among all the Turkish böreks Su Böreği is the only one which have the yufka dough boiled in water and that's the reason why people call it Su Böreği (Water Börek). It is filled with beyaz peynir, white cheese, and as expected Turkish people sometimes fill parsley along with white cheese. It's very delicious and after you eat this börek your stomach will be full of good power!
Sigara Böreği: this börek looks like a cigarette and this is the reason why it is called as Sigara Böreği (Cigarette Börek). They are usually stuffed with white cheese and parsley which is always inside of everything in Turkey. It's one of the popular meze börek as well. Sigara Böreği is fried and with this it's very crunchy. Be careful this börek is so extremely delicious that you can eat it like peanuts, entering into your mouth one by one, in other words stop eating them is a very hard job!
Paçanga Böreği: This is one of the most popular and perfect appetizer in Turkey. It has two main ingredients; pastırma, a dried cured beef of Anatolian origin, and kaşar cheese, Turkish cheddar cheese. You can garnish it with extra pepper and tomatoes as well. As pastrami is not easy to find, you can replace it with peperoni. Paçanga böreği is regarded as Sephardic Jewish specialty but also Armenians claim that they invented it, and so do the Turks. So, best to say is it is definitely Ottoman!
Çiğ Börek: This börek looks like a half-moon. It's filled with ground meat or minced meat and onions. As Turkish people love parsley and spices, they usually fill them together with meat and onion. After filling the börek, it if fried in olive oil. To let you know, Çiğ Börek is a national dish of the Crimean Tatars and when they migrated to Ottoman Empire probably they brought their börek with them. Today, Çiğ Börek is very popular in Turkey in places where Tatars live such as Eskişehir.
Laz Böreği: As Laz people are said to be strange, this börek differs from others with its sweet taste. Similar to the others it is made with layers of yufka. The difference comes from the fillings. You'll find muhallebi, a creamy pudding In Turkish style, inside of this börek, sorry, dessert! By the way hazalnuts go really well with this desert!
Haşhaşlı Börek (Börek with Poppy Seeds)
Now I'm going to talk about Haşhaşlı Börek (Börek with Poppy Seeds) and how to cook it by yourself. This is one of my favourite and the best together with my tea. It's not very easy to find all of the ingredients however no need to panic! You can use your fantasy and find some good substitute of it easily. Almost all the Turkish families have “tahta sofra”, a small round table, and oklava, a wooden rolling pin, to make yufka. If you don't have these two tools you can simply use a normal table and ordinary rolling pin or an empty bottle of wine. Now, the only thing you need are the ingredients. I'm going to give you a special recipe for a home-made börek which is not easy to find in a börek store and little chance you may find it in some nice bakery.
The ingredients that you need are:
– 500g wheat flour
– 2 teaspoon's salt
– Water as needed
– 250g margarine
– One tea glass of sunflower oil
– 2 or 3 tablespoon poppy seed and walnuts if you like
– 1 egg
First of all we need to prepare the yufka's dough which is simple part. The difficult part comes when you have to roll out the dough. Anyways, let's start with the yufka's dough. Put the wheat flour in a bowl. Then, add salt and water slowly. The dough shouldn't be too soft and too solid. If you know how to make pizza you can consider it like the almost same dough. When it is ready, let them cool for 15-20 minutes. Then, divide them into little balls which should be as big as your fist. Next is the most difficult part. Good luck! Don't forget that they have to be very thin without holes. You had better watch a video on the internet. This way you can catch the art of making yufka which is totally different than the Italian way of using the rolling pin. When the yufka is ready, you need to sprinkle the mix of butter/margarine and sunflower oil. Then, fill/sprinkle the poppy seeds and walnuts if you like. Then, divide the yufka in two pieces. Start rolling the half of yufka and give long worm shape. Place it in baking sheet. Do not forget to add egg on the top before putting it in the oven. Heat up your oven at 200° and wait for 30 minutes. Do not be punctual! Regularly check if they become brown because if it is, your börek might be ready!
Clinical psychologist, vocational trainer in psychology and traveller. I’m using my free time thinking, reading, painting, watching and hearing the sound of this world, always learning from different people. Florence is my city, Italy is my country, food is one of my biggest passions. Full of meaning, big pleasure for everybody and one of the main showcase of different culture and traditions.
Photo Credits: Pi István Tóth