The syrupy, pistachio filled baked layered journey of one of Ottoman Empire’s most prized sweetmeats, and a must-have during Ramadan. 

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph's courtesy: Hurrem's

There is this buttery fragrance wafting through the air as we step into the Turkish coffee house style space of Hurrem’s, one of the first Baklava brand in Mumbai. With its corners filled with different boxes showcasing the wide variety of the delightful Turkish speciality, the place is like a Disneyland for both Baklava lovers (and hunters). With Ramadan, the kitchen, especially the dessert section is in full swing with aromas of freshly baked dessert and traditional songs weaving and wafting through the place raising not just our noses but our appetite for sweets. It is said that Turkey consumes almost 900 kilos of Baklava a day. As we move into the honey, buttery magical world of Baklava, we see Chef Sefa Sülüker tending to his freshly baked Baklava or Havuc Dilmi, he corrects with a smile as he welcomes us to us magical kingdom.

Between calculated pouring of sugar syrup, Chef Sefa, a third generation of Baklava makers, takes us through what is easily one of the more complex yet stunning variation of the iconic dessert. Havuc Dilmi in Turkish, means a carrot slice and comes from the distinct triangular shape the Baklava is cut into. What however differentiates Baklava from Havuc Dilmi, which are in terms of appearance the same is the technique. To make Havuc Dilmi, one needs to not only master the skill of making a good Baklava but also understand the nature of pistachio nuts, especially one that grows in the Southeast region of Anatolia, where Baklava and Havuc Dilmi both have originated. For many baklava specialists including Chef Sefa for whom “baklava making isn’t just about being in business, but a family legacy that has been passed on from one generation to another”, is the ability to masterfully make and layer almost 80 sheets of delicate filo pastry, fill it with pistachio (or whatever nuts are in season of the place) and then douse it with sugar syrup all the while ensuring that the dessert doesn’t lose its flakiness.

But that is one facet of Havuc Dilmi’s complexity. even the way these pieces are cut to resemble the carrot needs years of practice and precision, which only a few can achieve and fewer can master. The training for making the perfect Baklava that could stand the test of freshness, flavour, taste and appearance begins at a fairly young age when one has to master the basic nut-filled Baklava. Knowing the ‘right proportion of the nuts, the ingredients of a flaky dough and the quickness in rolling out the sheet was crucial and given precedence.’ When you are working on a delicate dessert as Havuc Dilmi which is as much about the ingredient as it is about the technique, time plays a decisive role. Too less a time and you could create a mush, too long would be a sheer disaster. It takes a sizeable time for the seasoned hand to gain confidence to make a Havuc Dilmi, which is akin to a graduation, given that hands which are proficient in making the plain Baklava then hone their skills with Pistachio Dilber Baklava, which is a more complex version with 12 layers, and so on.

Another crucial element of making this version of Baklava is about adhering to a certain standard that is crucial for making a remarkable Baklava or a Havuc Dilmi, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel). Take for instance, the butter used for a baklava. Ideally, he says, “any good quality butter or fat should work, but for making a masterpiece traditionally the one made from the milk of sheep and goats that are fed untrodden herbs of the Harran Plain in South Eastern Turkey is recommended, and it works. Likewise, is the case with their pistachios, which have this inherent aroma that cannot be matched with those from anywhere else in the country. This is one of the regions that the filling of Baklava changes from the green gems to hazel nut as we approach the Black Sea, where the quality of hazel nuts is incomparable.

What is the benchmark to a good Havuc Dilmi?  While Baklava lovers like Suchinto Chatterjee call it the perfect marriage between skills and ingredients; for third generation baklava maker who bills a good Havuc Dilmi by the inherent aroma from the pistachios, the crispiness of the delicate filo pastry and the just right sweetness of the syrup. Take a single piece out of this brilliant composition and it isn’t a Havuc Dilmi, says the Baklava master, who calls having a good Havuc Dilmi as an “extraordinary experience, especially the one in Hurrem’s which is served warm with a scoop of handcrafted ice cream.”

Such is the praise for the art of Havuc Dilmi making that it was not only an integral part of the Ottoman Empire’s famous tables, but also occupied a place of pride in the Harem. A gift of Havuc Dilmi was considered as the biggest honour from the Padisha Begum and is believed to be a tradition that began with Hurrem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Suleiman. Food-lore, legend or otherwise, the prove of the pudding is that it was Baklava that got the south-eastern province of Gaziantep into the UNESCO’s list of “The Creative Cities Network” on gastronomy. And, if Baklava lovers are to be believed then it was Havuc Dilmi that aced the win.

It takes one bite of this decadent Turkish sweet to concur.