Istanbul’s beloved borek was forged in conquest and migration, yet there’s no better symbol for this bustling melting pot…
Why a humble filled pastry offers a glimpse into the history of one of the world’s greatest empires
For most, the legacy of the Ottoman Turks (1299– 1922) is the influence they had on countless cultures – as often happens when your borders extend most of southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Yet one all-conquering snack turns that idea on its head.
The borek, a simple filled pastry, emerged from the empire’s outposts in Central Asia. It was brought to Turkey by migrants, where it soon found its way to capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). Today, street stalls and homes across the city hiss with steaming trays of borek – a link to the communities that moved here from across the Black Sea region, not to mention a tasty snack for locals and visitors alike.
Caroline Eden, author of new travel cookbook Black Sea, sees a city whose cuisine is built on its past. “Istanbul is full of people from the Black Sea: cooks, fisherman, hammam owners, bakers, taxi drivers… it is arguably the world’s greatest kitchen,” she explains.
A classic Black Sea borek ( see online for Caroline’s recipe) might contain any of meat, cheese, sultanas, pine nuts or spinach, all wrapped in filo-like yufka pastry. “It’s baked as a large pie, rather than as small pastries,” Caroline adds. But due to its origins, it’s no surprise dozens of varieties exist in Istanbul.
Sariyer borek, named after the busy Istanbul neighbourhood, is filled with minced meat and cheese, while water borek, a variety stuffed with feta and parsley, can be found across the city. There’s even a sweet version, Laz boregi (or borek), that hails from the region of Rize: “Imagine a slice of baklava with paper-thin filo, but the size of a deck of cards and crammed with custard,” tempts Caroline.
You had us at ‘imagine’. Certainly, we can think of no better way to dive into Istanbul’s Ottoman history, or indeed fuel a visit there, than by biting into a borek. It’s the taste of empires.
Turkish delights The humble borek hails from across the Black Sea region, but found a home in IstanbulBlack Sea (Quadrille, £25) by Caroline Eden is out on 1 November