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Dig into the sweet comfort of Middle Eastern treats

The trinity of pastry dough, sugar syrup and spiced nuts in baklava and 'knafeh' make it worth the indulgence

Classic cream ‘kunafa’ from Kunafa World.
Classic cream ‘kunafa’ from Kunafa World.

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There are new sweets on platters and shelves, in gifting baskets and hampers. And they are not Indian.

Baklava and knafeh, decadent Middle Eastern desserts, are finding a sweet spot in homes through handcrafted batches and luxe festive gifting. Brands have begun getting orders for Christmas parties and corporate gifting. Last month, just ahead of Diwali, Medha Inamdar, a home baker from Navi Mumbai, notched up orders for 38kg of her special baklavas.

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The “sultan of sweets”, baklava—flaky, paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough doused in scented syrup and encased with the choicest of nuts—is known for its rich legacy and complex history. While many claim its origins can be traced to the Ottoman empire, some believe it originated in ancient Assyria (modern-day Iraq, parts of Turkey and Syria) as early as eighth century BCE. The beauty of baklava lies in the shared heritage of the Greeks, Turks, Egyptians, Lebanese, Armenians, Jews and Arabs, who developed their own classic versions influenced by local flavours.

Making the perfect baklava is a labour-intensive process. It starts with a sugar syrup that is infused with fresh orange, lime juice or rosewater. Once it acquires the desired consistency, it is left to cool. Phyllo sheets are then spread on a large baking tray. Nuts like pistachios, walnuts or hazelnuts are blitzed and combined with ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or cardamom. The mixture is spread on the phyllo sheets, layer upon layer, with brushings of melted butter in between, and then baked until the crust is golden. The buttery sugar bombs are cut into square or diamond shapes.

Premium dessert stores and brands are trying to showcase its exclusivity. Shazia Ahmed and Raies Sheikh launched Mezaya in 2018 to offer Mumbaikars freshly-baked baklavas in a delivery-only format. Currently operating as a cloud kitchen with 12 outlets, Mezaya hopes to reach a total of 25 outlets in the city by next year, before expanding to other metros. They source the rosewater from Iran, orange blossom from Lebanon and flour for the phyllo dough from Turkey.

Inamdar likes to call her baklavas desi since they are tailored to her taste. She picked up the basics from YouTube and came up with a bite-sized, less sugary version with a browner crust, rolled up like a bakarwadi. “Being a Pune girl, I think I was inspired by the city’s iconic snack,” says the self-taught baker (@mipieceocake on Instagram).

In 2019, Jameela Ruhi and her husband, Zamzeer Ahamed, transformed their home baking venture into a QSR, Kunafa World, in Bengaluru. Knafeh, also known as kunafe or kunafa and usually associated with Palestinian cuisine, is made of kadayif, a noodle-like shredded phyllo dough, layered with soft cheese and rich nuts and soaked in warm sugar syrup. Since the challenge was to get sweet lovers to own a foreign dessert, they introduced common flavour combinations such as Kitkat, Oreo, Nutella, Lotus Biscoff, Snickers, Bounty and Ferrero Rocher. The cheese is imported from Greece and the kadayif and cream blend are made in-house. With over nine outlets in Bengaluru, Vijayawada, Mysuru, Kochi and Mumbai, the couple hopes to expand to 15 more cities in 2022.

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Kolkata-based Vatsal Agarwal, 22, who started The Baklava Box in 2019, expanded to a pan-India delivery model and an offline collaboration with Nature’s Basket in October last year. Today, he gets an average of 500 orders a day, which peak during weddings and occasions like Diwali, Christmas and New Year. “We shipped around 40,000 boxes on Diwali alone,” he says.

Brands such as Hurrem’s, a boutique store in Mumbai launched a few months before the pandemic, are focused on the luxe gifting space. The opulent store-cum-café boasts of a selection of handcrafted baklavas, mastered by chefs from Gaziantep, Turkey’s baklava capital.

Businesses believe acceptance of this dessert could be due to its multidimensional flavour, familiar to the Indian palate. That hint of cardamom or whiff of rose is a huge comfort factor for the consumer. “It was encouraging to find people switching from traditional mithai to our baklavas as gifts to family and friends during Ganpati,” says Sheikh.

The retail grocery segment was quick to latch on to the trend. Avinash Tripathi, concept head at Fresh Pik, a premium grocery vertical from Reliance Retail, says they are planning a premium in-store experience with a shop-in-shop concept exclusively for Middle Eastern sweets.

Inamdar is now looking forward to making a batch of til gul baklava—a bittersweet concoction of peanuts, sesame seeds, cardamon and jaggery—for Makar Sankranti in January. All you have to do is keep up with Instagram.

Also read | The science of baking a Christmas cake

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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