And became the very definition of love poetry for royals and otherwise.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture Courtesy Medieval Cookery
It wasn’t just trade and visionary rulers that made Persia great, food too played an equally significant role, especially when it was about creating complex rich sweets that defied the conventional with stunning lightness. A perfect example of this in the modern day is baklava – and in the ancient world (we are talking pre-Ottoman), the Lauzinaj, the cousin of the famous Sanbusaj (samosa dough) that lured palates across Europe. Such was the fascination with this volatile sweet, sensuous, erotically filled, garnished and flavoured sweet treat that Persian sweetmakers were accorded the same status as Michelin stars would have today.
And for good reason, the sweets that were known for the gravity-defying flakiness and that unbelievable melt-in-your-mouth feel needed mastery over not just dough making but also in understanding how a sweet would respond to different forms of culinary techniques – and this included the science of tempering for desserts, a facet of food science that the pastry hands of Middle East were adept at.
While history is a little hazy about when, how and where the fascinating sweet treat originated– Middle East is largely credited for such an innovation – there are ample recipe books that have done a great job of recording the creation of a dessert that was, time and again, described as the ‘food of kings’. According to one recipe in Medieval Arabic Cooking, Lauzinaj was made in two ways: the dried version called Lauzinaj Yabis, while the richer, moist (almost drenched) version was the Lauzinaj Mugharraq. But the consistency wasn’t the only difference between the two Lauzinaj, aside the flaky pastry that was made to resemble the thin membrane of an eggshells, the Lauzinajs were as different as day and night.
While the drier version leaned towards being a candy with ground almonds cooked in boiling honey or sugar until reaching a taffy like consistency in the centre; the Mugharraq was a lavish preparation where equal proportions of almonds, pistachios and walnuts were hand-pounded and then blend with sugar before being bound with rosewater and perfumed with musk, mastic and ambergris. In fact, it was with this made-for-royalty and weddings version that the tradition of pouring warm scented, sweetened rose water over the pastry was started. And if historians are to be believed became the muse of the Baklava, which was refined in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman Empire including introducing the little stacks of pistachio on the top.
Interestingly, the dessert that changed the way pastry were made across the world, was also revered for their pastry dough. In fact, the thin doughmaking was often the benchmark that separated the best for the rest and had almost become a standard in making butterfly thin wafers before automation reached in confectionary. Unlike modern day filo pastry, the traditional Lauzinaj’s pastry was crepe thin – much like the rice sheet that China would create for their cold rolls.
And it all began with the making of the batter, which comprised of cornflour dissolved in water with one eggwhite added per ounce of the starch. This batter was cooked slowly over an iron tray which had to be waxed and not greased to get the right consistency. When pulled the sheet looked like a smokescreen – thus creating the paper thin sheet. It is a technique that also inspired the Odia Patoli Pitha which uses the same technique to create the base paper think pancake, using not the cornflour but flour (maida) in its place.
Fascinatingly, it is a technique that Middle East Baklava and Kunafa makers still use to give that dessert that fine, fleeting mouthfeel and sugar rush that often is equated to “being in love”. Or as the famous Persian bard, Ibn al-Rumi had said about this 9 th century favourite dessert, it’s food poetry, and not just any but Sultan of food poetry. And it surely is.