It seems that almost every country knows how to snack better than we do. We grab coffee and a muffin from a drive-through, or mindlessly reach into the chip bag while staring at the screen on our desk. I recently visited a friend in Spain's Basque country who pointed out, with disdain, the lone cafe in his town that would give you coffee in a to-go cup rather than the standard little demitasse. The idea that you wouldn't have a few minutes to sit and fully appreciate a cup of coffee and a little snack, either with a friend or the daily paper, was nearly unfathomable.
I hear where he's coming from. Every now and then, when I catch myself wolfing something down without even registering (let alone appreciating) it, or forgoing breaks altogether, I make a mental note to make up for it. With a proper cup of tea, a proper moment of respite. A proper borek.
Borek are delicious little turnovers from Turkey, the country that invented the meze (well, the word, anyway). In fine Ottoman fashion, Turks are known for putting out table-groaning displays of little bites, from tangy thick yogurt to savory stuffed vegetables. However, as a fan of all things wrapped in dough, I gravitate toward borek.
Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories on topics ranging from urban agriculture to gefilte fish have appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Voice of America, The World and Northwest News Network, and in The Oregonian, Vegetarian Times and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.
Maybe it's because I don't get enough Turkish food in my life. Or maybe it's because an individual borek, like any sort of dumpling or turnover, just seems so lovely. It's like a little gift-wrapped package, just for you, with a delicious surprise inside. And it's often a bit rich, either from a cheese filling or the oil/butter brushed between layers to keep pastry crisp, so it's practically built for enjoying between sips of a nice hot beverage.
Many countries have their own version of savory pastry-covered turnovers, from samosas to empanadas — it's too good an idea to stay in one place. And it's no surprise that Turks, the people behind phyllo dough (don't let the Greeks tell you otherwise), have a particularly developed tradition. Borek are made at home as delicate party snacks or enjoyed in shops as a little break, either with a cup of tea or a glass of tangy yogurt-based ayran.
Borek take so many forms that it's almost hard to talk about them as a whole. But let's start at the outside: the dough. Your Turkish mother might make her own, but these days it's totally acceptable to pick up a package of phyllo for those flaky layers (if you live in a place with a particularly well-stocked Middle Eastern market, you can seek out yufka, a slightly thicker version of phyllo that is favored for certain borek). The layers can be greased for crispness, moistened with a savory custard, or even boiled like pasta (for the famous water borek). Alternatively, they can be made with puff pastry for a slightly flakier version.
Fillings also vary, from lamb to vegetables to briny cheese, depending on the season or region (borek have spread beyond Turkey, to become a standard in the Balkans, or a staple of Sephardic cuisine). The fillings are rolled up in dough to form empanada-like half-moons, narrow cigars, coiled snails or ornate rose shapes, or cut into dainty squares from a large pan.
Yes, "borek" covers a pretty big catchall category, encompassing all sorts of delectable snacks. But this wide range shouldn't be off-putting — it makes it all the more likely that you'll find a variation you adore. So find a recipe, put the kettle on, and take some time out of your day to enjoy the moment.