Baklava (Ottoman Turkish: باقلوا) is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. It is characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and much of central and southwest Asia.
The history of baklava is not well-documented. It has been claimed by many ethnic groups, but there is strong evidence that it is of Central Asian Turkic origin, with its current form being developed in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace.
Many Ottoman sweets are similar to Byzantine sweets, using dough, sesame, wheat, nuts and fruits, and some were similar to the Ottoman börek, halva, and so on. Indeed, Vryonis identifies the ancient Greek gastris, kopte, kopton, or koptoplakous, mentioned in the Deipnosophistae, as baklava, and calls it a “Byzantine favorite”.
However, Perry argues that though gastris contained a filling of nuts and honey, it did not include any dough; instead, it involved a honey and ground sesame mixture similar to modern pasteli or halva.
Perry then assembles evidence to show that layered breads were created by Turkic peoples in Central Asia, and argues that the “missing link” between the Central Asian folded or layered breads (which did not include nuts) and modern phyllo-based pastries like baklava is the Azerbaijani dish Bakı pakhlavası, which involves layers of dough and nuts. The traditional Uzbek pakhlava, puskal or yupka and Tatar yoka, sweet and salty savories (boreks) prepared with 10-12 layers of dough, are other early examples of layered dough style in Turkic regions.
The thin phyllo dough as used today was probably developed in the kitchens of the Topkapı Palace. Indeed, the sultan presented trays of baklava to the Janissaries every 15th of the month of Ramadan in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alayı.
Other claims about baklava’s origins include: that it dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, and was mentioned in a Mesopotamian cookbook on walnut dishes; that al-Baghdadi describes it in his 13th-century cookbook; that it was a popular Byzantine dessert. But Claudia Roden and Andrew Dalby find no evidence for it in Arab, Greek, or Byzantine sources before the Ottoman period.
One of the oldest known recipes for a sort of proto-baklava is found in a Chinese cookbook written in 1330 under the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty under the name güllach. “Güllaç” is found in Turkish cuisine. Layers of phyllo dough are put one by one in warmed up milk with sugar. It is served with walnut and fresh pomegranate and generally eaten during Ramadan.