The 16th and 17th century Turkish invasions left a trail of delicious delicacies in their wake, spiking the Balkans all the way up to Vienna with scrumptious nibbles that would have an enduring, and filling, influence on the culinary cultures of territories from Bulgaria to Bosnia, and everywhere in between. With only slight variations on spelling and recipes, dishes like ajvar (red pepper spread), ljutenica (spicy pepper spread), lepinje (fluffy pita-like bread), cevapcici (small sausage-shaped meatballs), kajmak (butter-like cheese), Turkish coffee, baklava…the list goes on and on. But of all the Turkish specialties to have remained beloved staples throughout the Balkans, perhaps the most down-to-earth, inexpensive and satisfying is burek.
What is burek?
You’ve probably eaten some variation on burek (also called börek, byurek, byrek, böregi and any number of variants), even if you don’t realize it. Burek is simply a baked pastry comprised of a savory filling wrapped in phyllo dough (or yufka, as it’s called in Turkish). There are many possible fillings, but the most popular (if less traditional) today are curd cheese, minced meat, or pizza burek (filled with melty cheese and tomato sauce). Burek are usually prepared in a large pan and then cut into individual portions after baking. Cheap, greasy, satisfying, warming fast food. You can get burek from Ankara to Ljubljana in magnificent portions for less than 2 Euros.
The origins of burek recipe
But while pizza burek may hold its appeal, I’m interested in the original story, the recipe at the core of all that yummy yufka. It’s a bit hard to find, because so many countries claim their own burek is the real deal. But it’s hard to argue its Turkish origins. It was a popular feature in Ottamn cuisine, but something like it was eaten in ancient Rome. One theory goes that it was developed way back in Central Asia prior to the Turkic migration to the Anatolian peninsula. A competing theory (and one slightly awkward for me to type, for reasons you will soon see) is that the dish was a Byzantine specialty called plakountas tetyromenous, which evolved from the ancient Roman dish called…sorry about this…placenta—a doubtless delightful layered dish of dough and cheese that, nevertheless, would be a hard sell on Anglophone menus today. In Turkish, any dish made with yufka may be called börek, or in the burek family. The prefix bur- means “to twist.”
The Turkish börek comes in a variety of forms. Cibörek is half-moon shaped… Kalem böregi look like pastry cigars, and were originally called “sigara” for this reason—but, in 2011, pastry chefs started calling them kalem to avoid the association with smoking. Su böregi (water burek) is so named because the layered dough is first boiled, then sandwiched around feta, parsley and oil, before buttered and baked. Tatar böregi is more like a dumpling filled with cheese and mint but nevertheless “twisted,” tortellini-style, hence its name. Saray böregi (palace burek) sees the addition of butter rolled between layers of pastry—just in case the dish wasn’t rich enough. There are many more variations (even Kürt, which is sweet, filled with custard and topped with caster sugar).
But the variety does not stop at the Turkish border. Here’s a quick look at some other derivatives.
Burek recipes beyond turkey borders
- Bulgarian byurek: featuring cheese and eggs, the Bulgarians call it a variation on their traditional banitsa.
- Albanian byrek: a triangular version filled with ragu, you can also get it with pumpkin, nettles, or greens. Armenian byorek: triangles of dough packed with spinach, curd cheese, feta and a dash of raki liquor.
- Arabian börek: stuffed with minced lamb and beef seasoned with turmeric and nutmeg, then deep-fried.
- Austrian burek: cooked in Turkey but named after the Austrians, it features cubed lamb meat and green peas.
- Greek bourekaki: on Crete, you can get a burek filled with zucchini, potatoes, feta and spearmint Bosnian burek: the most prominent of all Bosnian foods, their burek is coiled and brushed with egg yolk, filled with curd cheese and sometimes spinach, and eaten with yogurt.
- Tunisian brik: deep-friend with a whole egg inside, along with tuna, harissa, parsley and onion.
- Serbian burek: Serbs slice burek into wedges off of a round whole pie, and fill it with minced meat and fried onions. The round burek is attributed to a Turkish baker, Mehmed Oglu, who served it in the town of Niš in 1498 (today there’s an annula burek festival, which featured a 100 kg burek in 2005).
- Italian burriche: yes, even in Italy, where there is a Ferrarese tradition of half-moon-shaped pastry stuffed with marmalade made from mandarin oranges.
- Crimean cibörek: the national dish of Crimean Tatars (who knew they had one) does not use phyllo but unleavened dough stuffed with ground lamb and fried in oil.
- Moldovan burechiuse: ravioli-ish square of mushrooms that is boiled in soup, so it soaks up the flavor. This may sound less burek-y than the rest, but the name suggests its origins.
- Sephardic Pacanga böregi: Jews of Istanbul prepared a version stuffed with sliced fried green peppers and pastirma (air-cured dried beef, a bit like Italian bresaola) or kasar (a hard, yellow sheep’s cheese).
- Israeli bourekas: mashed potato stuffed and seed-topped, Israeli bourekas is made with margarine instead of butter, to get around the no-milk-and-meat kosher rules.
I tried to make this delicacy, and the process was too easy cheating, too hard the hard way. I think this is one dish I prefer to buy from a greasy-aproned line cook with an attitude. Burek’s that kind of food. What the world needs now is a one-stop international burek stand where one can try all variations on the theme…preferably in my neighborhood.