A History of The Boreka

7 years ago Archive 0

Israeli cuisine is as interesting and varied as Israelis themselves. The Israeli boreka is an excellent illustration of this idea. As Jews moved from country to country and culture to culture, they combined the foods they had with the foods they found in their new homes. When we returned to Israel, the foods we brought from abroad were blended together to make Israeli food. In the case of the boreka, the Sephardim brought empanadas from Spain to Turkey and found börek. They combined to make the boreka, creating the hit Israeli phenomenon we know today.

The Seljuk Empire
The Seljuk Empire

To understand the history of the boreka, its Turkish inspiration must first be traced. After the slow Seljuk Turkish conquest of Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire, the region underwent “Turkification” when large migrations of Turkic nomads settled there, making Anatolia the Turkey that can be recognized today. These nomads brought with them a deep fried dumpling called a burga, whose name is derived from the Turkic root word bur, which is “to twist.” As the centuries passed, and as the Seljuk were replaced with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the burga had evolved into a vast variety of pastries, of all shapes and flavors. However, they all had in common the phyllo (or yufka) dough, which held the filling. Collectively, these pastries are called called börek. The Ottoman Empire grew to rival even the Byzantine Empire of old, and spread the börek to whichever nation it conquered. For example, börek variants can be found today in Armenia, Albania, and Greece.

Just about forty years after the Ottomans demonstrated their might to to the world with the final destruction of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Kingdom of Spain was also flexing its muscles. In 1492, it had completed the Reconquista and removed the last stronghold of the Muslim Caliphate in Iberia. Faced with a massive Muslim minority, the Spanish monarchy decided to get rid of its other religious minority: the Jews. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the Alhambra Decree, the edict of expulsion in which all of the kingdom’s Jews were given three choices: Flee, convert, or die. Many of the Spanish Jews, or Sephardim, had heard of the religious tolerance of the Ottoman Empire, and travelled to Anatolia to pursue new lives. They had not forgotten the hundreds of years of Spanish Jewry, however, and brought their customs and traditions with them.

The Ottoman Empire in 1450 CE
The Ottoman Empire in 1450 CE

Not only did they bring their Sephardic religious practices and Ladino language, but they also brought Spanish food. In particular they brought with them the empanada, which are usually cheese turnovers made with pastry dough. When the Sephardim settled in the Ottoman Empire, they noted the similarities between their empanadas and the Turkish börek. By the 1700s, the Sephardim combined the two pastries into one boreka. The name comes from the Turkish “börek,” but with a Spanish feminine ending, “a.” Borekas have all the interesting filling varieties of their börek counterparts, but they kept the Spanish pastry dough.

After the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, a massive influx of Jews from all over the world created a melting pot of international cultures. One cultural relic that the Sephardim brought to Israel was their boreka. The boreka rocketed in popularity even among the non Sephardim. Today, it is one of the trademarks of Israeli snack foods, second only to the falafel. Walk through the streets of Tel Aviv and the boreka vendors can be found on every corner. Borekas of all flavors are popular, and are usually served with a brown egg and coffee or drinking yogurt.

Finished your schlep through my history lesson? Don’t worry, now that I’ve satisfied your curiosity, I’m going to satisfy your appetite! Here is a cheese boreka recipe from Janna Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food:

Ingredients (makes 20 large borekas):
Cheese Filling:
500g ricotta
250g grated Parmesan
250g crumbled feta
2 egg yolks
1 Tbsp cornstarch
Black pepper
1½ kg puff pastry dough
1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp water, for brushing
Sesame seeds for garnishing
1. Preheat oven to 180℃ (350℉).
2. Beat all ingredients for the filling until smooth.
3. Roll dough into a ½ cm thick sheet. Cut into 12cm squares. Put one tablespoon of the filling in the center of each square, fold diagonally to form a triangle and pinch the edges together. Arrange the borekas with sufficient space between them on a tray lined with baking paper.
4. Brush the triangles with the beaten egg and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
5. Bake for about 30 min until borekas are golden and plump.