Pistachio Politics

Discovering a new angle on Turkey’s identity crisis through baklava

Unfazed by nine recent cavities and one root canal, I headed for Istanbul hell-bent on the sweet stuff. There were the occasional savory distractions out on the streets—wheeled carts piled with grilled-mackerel sandwiches or ring-shaped breads encrusted with sesame seeds—but my prime destination was Karaköy Güllüoğlu. Nadir Güllü, the fifth-generation keeper of the shrine to the greatest baklava in Turkey, greeted me with theatrical gestures in place of English. Head thrown back and eyes half-lidded in pleasure undimmed by decades of eating and making the national dessert, Nadir wafted the buttery perfume of his factory toward himself with athletic sweeps of his arms.

His staff—dusted white, down to their eyelashes, with the starch in the air—bowed with hand over heart as their boss imparted good wishes for the work ahead. In Turkey, this pastry commands arduous devotion. A “master” must pledge lifelong commitment, as serious as marriage, to baklava; to spread your efforts across multiple foods is considered a breach of loyalty. As Güllü told me, with a translator’s help: “The man who uses his hands is a laborer. The man who uses his mind is a master. But the man who gives his heart to the passion is a craftsman.”

And the person who has discovered that not all baklava is cardboard or mush—a revelation I’ve had living in Berlin, near the city’s robust Turkish community—is likely a zealot. At Güllü’s urging, I helped him lay down sheet after sheet of silk-like dough on a buttered tray. “Very, very, very,” he chanted amid streams of rapid Turkish, his way of conveying the extreme care taken by a baklava maker at every stage of the process. The dough must be rolled so thin that a newspaper could be read through it. The butter must come from sheep grazing at high altitudes. Temperatures—of the room, oven, syrup—must be adjusted according to the weather. Experts recommend that workers shower every two hours during the summer to avoid overheating the room.

Karaköy Güllüoğlu uses almost 400 pounds of pistachios a day. (Esther Yi)

Most important, the pistachios must be grown in the magic climes of Gaziantep and plucked from the tree before they’re ripe, to deliver their subtle aroma and tender, sweet essence. (Local folklore holds that during one government official’s visit to Antep, as the city is sometimes called, he was served soup, rice, baklava, and ice cream—all with pistachios. “Can I please have a glass of water without pistachio?” he said.) All around me in Güllü’s kitchen, piles of Kermit-green grounds—Karaköy Güllüoğlu uses almost 400 pounds a day—glowed with chemical intensity against the gray countertops.

I would have liked to make the pilgrimage to the revered birthplace of fıstık (the Turkish word for “pistachio,” which is also slang for “hot babe”), but Gaziantep lay more than 500 miles away, in southeastern Turkey.

And there was much to learn from Murat, Güllü’s 26-year-old son, who helps with the business. Spear the pastry with your fork, Murat instructed, and you should hear the top layers—crackly and paper-thin, separated by pockets of air—crashing into each other. Probe deeper, and discover resistance where pistachios and layers of dough sit glutted with syrup: a precarious blend of delicacy and sticky density.

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Esther Yi is a journalist living in Berlin.

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