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Bussing To Baklava Bliss

Southern Turkish Gem Makes World’s Finest Phyllo Pastry

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - The straightforward objective: baklava. The simple inquiry: “Where?” The swift response: “Gaziantep.”

The prospect of imminent baklava makes anything else all too easy to ignore, like the fact that Gaziantep isn’t merely a pastry shop in Istanbul, but a city of over a million people near the Syrian border, 550 miles away.

Turkey is one of at least a half-dozen countries with claims to baklava’s origins, and in at least one citizen’s estimation, Istanbul didn’t pass muster. Gaziantep, or Antep, is Turkey’s production capital of pistachios, the honey-soaked pastry’s most prominent ingredient, and the self-proclaimed world capital of baklava.

Getting there is as easy as flying, but on a low budget and with a backpacker’s itinerary, it takes an inordinate number of bus-hours, the only appropriate measurement of time on Turkey’s equally extensive and bewildering network of coach lines. Thus, one arrives in Antep ravenously hungry, itching for the long-awaited objective.

Scooters careen past uniformed students on Gaziantep’s narrow streets (as seen in Photo 1), and adults mingle in squares and eateries. Meat is eaten throughout the day, and ciger — liver — kebab is common, especially for breakfast. Lahmacun, a thin crust “pizza” lightly smeared with minced lamb or beef, baked to order and garnished with parsley and lemon, is a sublime street food. Succulent chicken, lamb and vegetable shish kebabs are ubiquitous and as hard to resist as everything else.

Merely suggesting that one resist meat in Antep seems sinful, but if one were to craft an argument for why one should, “baklava” would suffice. Moreover, as any local knows, bakery-restaurant Imam Cagdas (as seen in Photo 2) has perfected that argument (as seen in photo 3). (Full disclosure: In the end, attempting to resist the city’s meat is futile.)

Each batch of this exquisite pastry contains dozens of layers of phyllo dough — each sheet hand-rolled thinner and more transparent than wax paper — on either side of finely chopped Antep fisitgi, the local breed of pistachios. Once assembled, it is sliced, baked and drenched with honey syrup. But to diminish any of the many variants of this heavenly creation to a mere list of ingredients or steps is to miss the point altogether.

Countless pieces of baklava are eaten right side up each day, which is egregious abuse. The proper way to enjoy baklava is to bite into it with its underside facing up. The whispery crunch as the lower teeth pierce the flaky top layers of phyllo is a jazz drummer’s brushes playing the opening beats of a remarkable composition. With a flourish, the band joins in as the dense syrup-soaked bottom meets the sensitive tissue at the roof of the mouth, and a symphony orchestra of flavor erupts into melody as nectar trickles down over the tongue, coating the mouth’s interior with the sweet plaster of honey and the greenest pistachios in the world.

The intensity of the experience of gorging oneself on Imam Cagdas’ baklava can easily create an addiction. It isn’t hard to imagine how difficult it is to leave this fair city behind, bakery box in hand, the only concrete proof of having visited. It is what this box contains that will provide one’s only nourishment for the ongoing journey across Turkey’s surreal backcountry terrain, one endless bus-hour after the next.

Photos courtesy of Aaron J. K. Ostrow