The cuisine of the Ottoman Turks: a perfect snack to eat on your Israel tour!
By Rachel Spitz
A young couple walked hurriedly down the Tel Aviv sidewalk simultaneously chatting and preparing their Friday morning breakfast. The woman held open a plastic sack for her boyfriend while he extracted a wrinkled, grease-stained bag. As they bit into their burekas, their speedy pace slowed into a leisurely stroll. Flakes of pastry fell from their mouths causing them to pause and brush each other's shirts clean. The woman giggled as she gently wiped the stray pastry from her boyfriend's beard.
"Burekas are a 24-hour food," said Yigal, owner of the Non-Stop Burekas shop in Tel Aviv. "People eat them in the morning, before going out at night, and after returning from partying." Yigal and his partner David opened their shop five years ago. The fillings in their burekas range from pizza flavored, mushroom, a type of Bulgarian cheese called kashkaval, potato, and salty cheese. Spinach seems to be their most popular flavor.
The bureka, also spelled boureka, boreka and burreca, is a Sephardic version of the Turkish pastry known as the borek. The cuisine of the Ottoman Turks called for thin layered sheets of pastry, called yufka, filled with sweet or salty filling and served either baked or fried. This concept, deriving originally from the idea of folded bread, dates back to somewhere between the 11th and 15th century.
When the Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century and settled in Ottoman Turkey, they found comfort in the Ottoman borek; the pastry reminded them of their own Spanish dough filled with meat. It was not long before the Spanish Jews adapted the Ottoman Turkish borek into their own cuisine and renamed it the Ladino boreka. Jews living in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Balkans and Greece, also adapted the Ottoman borek into their own ethnic cuisine.
When Sabi, of Turkish and Greek background, immigrated to Israel from Turkey in 1935, he opened his own bureka stand called Gazoz in the Florentine Quarter of South Tel Aviv. The stand is authentic for more than just its Turkish-style burekas, though. Gazoz is named after and also known for its Turkish drinks: Gazoz, which is similar to cream soda, and Tamarindi, which is made of dates. These drinks are made using a special machine that Sabi, himself, brought with him from Turkey to Israel. As if the large burekas filling the glass counters aren’t reason enough to visit Sabi, his Tamarindi machine is one of only two in Israel.
Florentine is home to another authentic Turkish-style bureka bakery that’s been in existence for more than 30 years. The Mis Bakery on Stern Street is run by the Mis family patriarch, referred to only as "grandpa"; he came over from Turkey decades ago and opened the bakery. Walking into grandpa’s bakery can be an overwhelming experience for the senses. A table sits in the middle of the shop filled with cakes, cookies and quiches. The surrounding walls also shelve tantalizing desserts. Trays of burekas, hot out of the oven, are arranged on rectangular tables in a delicious assembly line. There are no labels differentiating the fillings inside, yet one whiff of the fresh pastries is enough to want to sample all of them. Some are golden brown, some are delicately sprinkled with sesame seeds, some are smooth, and some bubble with cheese.
"I recommend the mushroom and onion bureka," suggested one of the bakers. He handed me one, and I took a bite not caring whether it was cool enough to eat; I didn’t regret my haste.
Once I swallowed the last of my treat and told him of my recent change of loyalty to the mushroom and onion bureka (previously, my favorite was spinach), I asked the baker why, in his opinion, burekas are so popular in Israel.
He shrugged. "Why is pizza so popular in the States?" His attention then turned toward another customer who was waiting for his expert advice. The baker stuffed the indecisive customer’s sack with an assortment of flaky burekas and tossed it to her. She made what seemed to be an impressive catch, but immediately dropped the bag because of how hot its greasy contents were.
Bureka shops, stands and counters dot the entire city of Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, the distances between many of these joints aren’t far enough apart to burn off the calories consumed from even the tiniest of burekas. Some of these shops also serve a variation on the bureka called lahmajoon. This Armenian pastry, which consists of flat dough stuffed or sprinkled with shredded lamb and spices, is also known as Armenian pizza.
An informal survey conducted for this article revealed that most Israelis think the bureka originates from Bulgaria. It’s not a surprising answer given that Bulgarian cheese is such a popular filling. When told that Turkey is the more accurate place of origin, most responses consisted of shoulder shrugs. "The origin of the bureka doesn’t matter," said one Israeli between bites of his Bulgarian cheese bureka at Yossi’s counter. "The important thing is that they remain a part of Israeli culture today."
Need more Israel dining suggestions? Check out the restaurant tips in our Israel Travel Guide.