Coming in a variety of preparations and tastes, börek plays a leading role in many Istanbul culinary storylines.
By Aylin Öney Tan
If one thing is certain in Turkey, it is that people have a soft spot for any food made of thin, flaky layers of dough, and “börek” is no exception. Börek is a staple of the Turkish table, typically filled with ingredients such as cheese, meat, or spinach spread between sheets of thinly rolled out dough and then baked, pan or deep-fried. Bearing a variety of tastes, from soft and creamy to flaky and crusty, börek comes in various forms, shapes, and sizes, all wrapped, rolled, spiraled, bundled, or folded into individual portions of pleasure.
When I was small, I would often daydream of a feast filled with only fried börek. The particular börek I fancied the most was “puf böreği,” a puffed, half-moon shaped, pillow-like version. My paternal grandmother had a magic hand for making them, toiling for hours with her two daughters (my aunts) helping her, only for the piles of börek to disappear in seconds. On these special occasions, where we also invited neighbors and extended family, börek was the centerpiece and star of the table, only accompanied by bowls of cacık (tzatziki) for dipping. Puff börek is still a delight like no other for me, crisp on the outside with a steaming, melting center of white cheese with parsley and a bit of dill. Finding delight in your own personal börek story requires some critical börek information for your Istanbul culinary journey.
A secret that lies in layers
Börek’s intricate construction is the foundation for its deliciousness. Although it is often stated that “less is more,” with börek, the more layers the better. As it cooks, egg wash and melting butter seep into air pockets between the layers to create an unmatched creaminess that prevents börek from drying out and makes it soft and velvety, contrasting the crunch of the top and bottom layers.
The dough is the key secret to success. Yufka (phyllo) is a versatile, thinly rolled out dough either hand rolled at home or bought from yufka shops where it is ready-made for convenience. It is rolled out and dry-cooked on one side and kept under sheets of cloth to keep its silky smoothness. Ready-made yufka is a great resource for home cooks, and can be turned into a delightful snack or into full meal in a flash. Almost every neighborhood has a yufka shop, supplementing several meals a week for most families. Friends living abroad often appreciate yufka sheets as a gift, as it can be saved frozen for future use.
Tucked between the layers, the filling is a crucial element that defines börek both by taste and often, by name. Peynirli (with cheese), kıymalı, (with minced meat), ıspanaklı (with spinach) are three commonly found, classic varieties. Apart from these staples, there is also an extensive list of unique fillings such as boiled potatoes, sautéed leeks, grated zucchini, roasted eggplant pulp, mushrooms, wild fennel and other mixed foraged wild greens and herbs. The filling of choice is also open to the creativity of the cook, with regional cuisines featuring a variety of takes on classic börek with fillings such as chicken and rice pilaf.
Food for thought
Although Börek is prepared multiple ways, knowing the different types of börek is the first step to finding your perfect taste. Fried börek comes in many forms and can be made with different types of doughs such as yufka, freshly rolled out basic flour dough mixed with water and salt, or with yeast leavened dough. The most popular variety of fried börek is “sigara böreği” which, as the name suggests, is rolled like a cigarette. Similar to sigara böreği is “muska böreği,” which takes its name from its triangular shape which resembles a “muska,” or talisman. Both are prepared with a variety of fillings and are not only easy to make at home, but also can be found at cocktail receptions or tea-time gatherings. A favorite on mezze tables is the rectangular shaped “paçanga böreği” filled with tomatoes, green peppers, slices of pastrami, and melted cheese. In Istanbul’s ever-expanding meyhane scene, fried börek varieties are not only widely available, but becoming an obligatory warm mezze course.
One gigantic, fried börek that shouldn’t be missed while wandering Istanbul’s streets is “çiğ börek.” With Caucasian roots and brought into Turkey’s gastronomy scene by Crimean Tatars, it is typically found in small specialty shops around the city. Large enough to serve as a meal of its own, this deep fried turnover of thin dough folded in a half-moon shape is stuffed with meat and onion filling spiked with black pepper. Despite its huge size, one is never enough.
A critical sense to keep in mind when trying a piece of börek is touch. Other than yufka, börek cooks around town sometimes use puff pastry or similar fatty doughs, which typically makes an extremely flaky börek that is almost unmanageable to eat. Although they are often a delight to eat, the flakiness leads to a large amount of crumbs on your plate, rather than in your mouth. One very flaky type with a butter rich dough and a tasty ragù center of meat, carrots, and peas is “talaş böreği,” as “talaş” means sawdust, chipped, or shaved. Similarly, popular in districts such as Karaköy or Sarıyer, is “kol böreği” or “arm” börek, which is also quite flaky.
Not limited to the standard experience, Istanbul’s börek scene also plays host to unique and peculiar börek preparations. One very popular type is “su böreği,” literally “water börek,” which would not be out of place in the Italian pasta family. The sheets of dough are first boiled in water, much like pasta, then layered with butter and fillings and pan roasted on both sides to obtain a crispy crust. One particular preparation of this börek has become a phenomenon, oozing with three different cheeses, making it irresistible for cheese lovers and carb cravers alike. Another unique take on börek comes from Sephardic Jewish cuisine. Börekitas, which have now escaped the confines of home dining thanks to the marketing muscle of Kahve Dünyası, are tiny bites with eggplant or potato filling and are the Turkish-Jewish gift to the börek world.
No börek story is complete without dessert. Although typically living in a food category of its own, technically, baklava is a börek drenched in syrup. Available in both sweet and savory varieties, regional specialties abound. A peculiar specialty from the Black Sea region is “Laz böreği,” filled with milk custard and doused with syrup. Laz börek is unique because it contains a secret ingredient, black pepper, which is a prickly presence in each bite meant to represent the mother-in-law.
At home on the family table and in restaurants, served both day and night, it is important to have a base level of börek knowledge. Fried or baked, savory or sweet, börek, with both its endless variety and multitude of preparations, remains a critical piece in the Turkish culinary story.