Monday, 27 October 2008

Borek: layers of dough and family history

You walk into the light and airy room, and immediately you are transfixed by the movement of two hands: they swirl, they throw and caress what seems like a flexible and rapidly expanding circle of material. These masterful hands are old, but strong and knowledgeable. You realise quickly that they are the centre of everything that happening in this room, and that everyone’s eyes are following this play between the inanimate material and live limbs. You then come to hear the cling-cling of tulip glasses, the whisper of moving chairs and eventually the chatter of those who, just like you, have come here to witness the repeated magic of borek-making. Master Tefvik’s borek-making.

Tefvik is a modest and wise king of this heart-warming place that is the size of an average kitchen that has just a few simple white tables with low stools and a heart of an old and faithful oven in the middle with an ordinary fork serving as its lock. The master has been making his boreks for over 40 years; and his little bakery-cum-café had been run by his ancestors since 1930s. You want to understand the secret of this magic and sit down at one of the tiny tables, smiling shyly but happily. You watch again the assertive hands, this time noticing that their owner takes a shiny ball of dough out of a tray, roll it out lightly, throwing the small circle in the air, rotating it, making it double, triple its size; scatter the filling of ricotta-type cheese or mince meat; fold it; brush it with a golden glue of warm butter and feed the oven with this envelope. This is not the usual pie encountered in so many bakeries around Turkey…Whilst waiting for your breakfast you reminisce at what you know about the omnipresent borek and think back to your first encounter in Istanbul

is a filled pie made out of flaky dough that has many incarnations around the Mediterranean sea and the Balkans: it is a Byrek in Albania where it is made with pumpkin and spinach; it is a Boereg and spicy in Armenia; in Bosnia the Burek is always meat-filled and shaped like an American cinnamon bun; even the Tatarn Cheborek is a brother of Turkish Borek – it is made with an unleavened dough and deep-fried. In Turkey the word Borek refers to many variations of this dish, but almost always it is made out of thin flaky dough known as phyllo dough (or yufka dough), and is filled with salty cheese (often feta), minced meat, potatoes or other vegetables. You often see large round trays of Boreks in windows of bakeries throughout Turkey, where the pie is cut into different shapes (depending on its filling and cooking method) and sold by weight. Turks eat Boreks for breakfast with tea, for lunch with ayran (a yoghurt drink), as a snack through the day, and for dinner as meze. Its popularity amongst all society levels throughout history is probably of the same origin as of a Cornish pasty or a Russian pirozok – it is a piece of bread with a filling, that can be eaten hot or cold, as a fancy dish at an aristocratic table or in a field under the tiring sun.

The king of boreks is a su borek, or a water borek. Called like this because the preparation of the dough for this kind is a laboursome method involving briefly boiling the sheets of dough, blanching them in ice (to stop the cooking) and smearing them with melted butter. The result is a heart-stoppingly delicious square of layered dough and a filling, often cheese, very light and scrumptious. You were very fortunate to taste this expensive treat at a small birthday gathering in Istanbul – su borek had just been baked and was only still warm. The silkiness of the dough layers on your tongue, the aroma of the sunny melted butter and the freshness of the citrusy cheese filling slowly going down your throat were a thrill to all your senses. It was both a comforting and intense feeling…

You are back in the warmness of the Antalyan kitchen; you realise that you were awaken from your thoughts by the saliva collecting in your mouth, triggered by the smell first – the combination of just-out-of-the-oven pastry mixed with juicy meat filling, sprinkled with parsley;
then the hardly noticeable sound of crispy dough waking up to the oxygen presence in the room (the uncommon presence of oil in the dough creates this extra crunch); and then the sight...It is a perfect borek, a unique hand-made creation even more perfect from the randomness of its making. You bite into it and are awash with your own memories of the sun-baked Anatolian villages and the warmth and generosity of their inhabitants; you are flooded with the unspoken recollections of the borek-maker. You can almost see Tefvik’s face some 50 years ago, standing by the side of his dad, his head hardly reaching the height of the table in a room dusted with flour, lit by the sun and amber of tea. The boy's little curious face was witnessing the same magic you have just been part of…

And you desperately want the circles of lives and pastry to continue existing for another billion of years, in spite of the worrying tabloid headlines, crushing reality of big cities, or broken family chains, when children want to live in a modern world, away from the magical, but repetitive movement of the wise hands.

1 comment:

Tijen said...

Hi Katrina,
I told Tevfik Usta about your post and he was so happy to hear that. I'm just copying the photos you sent me to give it to them. And today, I brought my Brazilian friend Marcelo. He was so happy and we again had to argue about the paying! Since I made him promise last time (in front of his helper Mehmet) he agreed taking some but not all. Then he took Marcelo to the barber he knows and told the barber not to get money from him! He's such a warm, friendly and a loving person.