I had my first bite of baklava at a restaurant in Chennai that claimed to serve Mediterranean food. It was good eight years ago, but I remember being intrigued; the paper-thin sheets of pastry filled with pistachios dribbling in sticky sugar syrup did seem like the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day at work, among other things. By Harini Sriram
Earlier this year, I was in Istanbul; I did the customary sight-seeing trips, gaped in awe at the Blue Mosque, cruised down the Bosphorus, haggled at the local markets, scoured the streets for doner kebabs and the most succulent kofte, but it wasn’t until my last day in the charming city that I sank my teeth into the country’s famous baklava. “Go to Hafiz Mustafa near Istiklal Street. Best baklava,” my chirpy, talkative driver had said, as he drove me to my hotel. I definitely did not want to pass up an opportunity to visit one of Istanbul’s oldest and most iconic confectioneries, so I promptly boarded the metro train to Taksim Square and walked towards Istiklal Street.
Established in 1864, Hafiz Mustafa is a small, unassuming sweet shop that stocks a mind-boggling variety of sweet treats, including at least five types of baklava. Swarms of people buzzed in and out, and I sat in a quiet corner, my plate heaped with three huge baklavas – pistachio, chocolate and the plain one – and a glass of çay or Turkish tea. Not the best idea when I was already weighed down by a heavy lunch, but one nibble of the pistachio-flavoured slice of goodness, and I knew why I’d braved the intense cold, windy evening to be there. The rain came down in sheets, but I munched on, unmindful of the frenzy, stopping only to sip on some tea, as I exchanged stories and recipes with the staff. Food really does bring people together.
It was here that I learned how contentious the baklava is; the Greeks lay claim to this supreme dessert, while Turkey believes it belongs to them, with the Ottoman empire largely credited with popularising the dish. The making of the dessert itself is a notoriously complicated process, which is a good thing. Otherwise, I’d probably be making it at home every other day. For now, I can’t help but smile as I look back at that beautiful, rainy evening; I can almost feel the crunch of the phyllo pastry with chocolate oozing out between the layers. Turkish delight may be all the rage in the country among tourists, but Istanbul will always remind me of baklava in that tiny bakery off Istiklal Street Istanbul.