Folded, Layered or Twisted?

Folded, Layered or Twisted?

During my recent visit to Eskişehir OMM Museum, the new modern museum designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma & Associates, I have to admit I had a hidden agenda: to taste the famous “çibörek” of the town.

“Çibörek” is a börek variety, pretty much like a fried folded flatbread dough with a juicy mincemeat filling. Meaning delicious tasting, it is a gift of the Tatar population that once emigrated from Crimea. It is amazingly juicy and satisfying and of course, has the irresistible appeal of fried dough. From the point of culinary culture, it also represents an interesting mix of cultures, a crossroad example of a transition between a börek and gözleme.

Börek is a generic name given to a range of dishes made with rolled-out dough. It is usually translated as a savory pie, which is only a partial description that falls short of explaining its true nature. Börek usually has multiple layers of dough, with a filling of either cheese, meat or spinach, spread between sheets of thinly rolled out dough, and then baked, pan-fried, or deep-fried.

The dough of börek bears many textures, from soft, creamy and silky inner layers, to flaky, crusty, crispy and crunchy outer layers. The shape can also vary enormously: Beyond the usual ones layered in a baking tray, it can come in various forms, shapes and sizes, either wrapped, rolled, twisted, wrinkled, coiled, spiraled, bundled or folded into individual parcels, to be baked or fried.

The origin of börek is yet a mystery to be solved. According Andreas Tietze, the eminent Austrian Turcologist, the word comes from Persian “bûrak,” which referred to any dish made with yufka. This, in turn, probably came from the Turkic verb “burmak,” “bur“ meaning “to twist.” Actually, this twisting effect is very true. Bosnian and many Balkan versions, where almost all börek varieties come in are not layered but rolled shapes, then twisted or coiled or laid in a U-shape pattern on a tray to be baked, which may have also given rise to Austrian and German Strudels.

Börek is also a close relative to “gözleme,” a type of griddled flat bread, which might be the ancestor of all börek categories. “Gözleme” is simply a single sheet of dough, rolled round, spread with a filling and folded in a half-moon shape and then spread on a cooking griddle named “sac” - which is like an inverted wok and cooked on both sides turning over once one side is totally done. It is as simple as that, while the construction of börek is more complicated. One can say that gözleme is a primal version, one that is probably developed by the nomadic tribes. Far from having the commodities of settled life, nomadic cooking naturally does not have the luxury of kitchen and ovens, dwelling on very few utensils to cook, where a “saj,” a flat-iron griddle, suspended over an open fire or placed on hot embers comes to the rescue. A gözleme is unsophisticated and straight forward yet very tasty. It makes the best use of the simplest ingredients. The dough is made with flour, water and salt only. The flour is bought at city markets or bartered from peasants that grow the grain. The filling is simple, usually cheese they make themselves from the milk of their sheep and goats, parsley or foraged herbs and edible greens from the wild. Once the folded dough is griddled, both sides are brushed with butter, and nomads have the best butter. Sometimes, the filling is a little bit more complex with spinach or boiled potatoes with lots of onions. Of course, there are also meat versions. Sautéed mincemeat filling is a more luxurious version, but nowadays, with most Yörük nomads now settled in towns, it is almost like an everyday treat.

The Tatar çibörek is almost like mincemeat-filled gözleme, fried instead of griddled, but with a raw meat filling to achieve the juiciness that is essential. Frying in hot oil provides the high heat that cooks the raw meat. The mincemeat filling has a bit of water added to the mixture, and being trapped in the dough, the meat oozes out its juices, resulting in a Shangai soup dumpling effect, very juicy in the inside, fried golden on the outside, yet the whole thing is rather soft like a gözleme, which can even be rolled or folded by hand. In that sense, a çibörek is also reminiscent of Tunisian brik, or Algerian bourek, which has a raw egg filling, together with a mixture of tuna fish, onions, harissa and parsley. They seem to be far distant relatives, set apart by twists of fate, migrating to distant corners of the world. I think soon I will make another trip to Eskişehir to try the folded and fried delight and maybe try to learn a bit more of its multi-layered history, while watching over the beauty of the OMM building and its multifaceted, multilayered sophistication, so Turkish and Ottoman, yet so Japanese at the same time, an amazing mix of cultures, pretty much the amazing journey of folded, layered and twisted delicacies that bridge the cuisines of so many countries.

Fork of the Week: When in Eskişehir, it is hard to distinguish which çibörek joint is the best. Papağan in the center is supposedly the most popular, but many claim that the Kırım Börekçisi (getting its name from Crimea) in Kentpark is one of the best. I remember tasting a very good one at the Eskişehir Çibörek Evi, also famed for its authentic Crimean specialties. In Odun Pazarı district, where OMM is located, almost every café has its own versions. Years ago, a local whispered me to try Eylül Çibörek, where a lady makes the best of all at her small place close to Yunus Emre street. I suggest going çibörek hopping to try all of them. Taking the walk in between stops, with a visit to the Odunpazarı district and the OMM, will burn off all the calories gained, no doubt about it.

Cork of the Week: If gözleme is the ancestor of börek, boza is claimed to be the ancestor of beer. It is also believed to be the inspiration behind the word booze. A slightly fermented drink, thick and opaque, it hardly looks and tastes like beer, but it is a fermented grain drink, so the idea is the same. It is an acquired taste for sure, so forget about the beer angle, and taste it as a soupy drinkable pudding, slightly tangy from fermentation, but also sweet. Dusted with cinnamon, Karakedi is the place to taste it, theirs is made from corn, which results in a wholesome sweet yellow concoction.