White House Dinner Sets Off a Turkish-Greek Food Fight
Has the White House inadvertently stepped into one of the Mediterranean's oldest unresolved conflicts, namely: which country in the region gets to claim itself as the inventor of baklava?
The issue has been heating up over the last few years. In 2006, for example, Turkish makers of the flaky dessert were outraged when European Union tourism posters featured baklava as a, gasp, Cypriot invention. But the baklava battle has opened up a new front after a March 22 White House dinner in honor of Greek Independence Day. Although it was a closed affair, Maria Loi, a New York-based Greek chef who prepared the evening's dinner, told a Greek-American publication that President Barack Obama "loved baklava." Picked up by the Turkish press, the story became one of the President saying how much he loved "Greek baklava," leading to angry denunciations from columnists who suggested Obama brush up on his Balkan culinary history and that Loi's entire menu for the affair -- moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, Greek salad and the offending baklava -- was comprised of nothing more than Turkish dishes dressed up as Greek ones.
Worried about the Greeks claiming other cross-border staples as their own, some Turkish foodmakers are now taking preemptive action. Reports Turkey's Cihan news agency:
The İstanbul Simit Tradesmen Chamber has launched a process to get an international patent for the number one Turkish street food, the simit, a ring of chewy bread coated with toasted sesame seeds.
İstanbul Simit Tradesmen Chamber Chairman Zeki Sami Özdemir on Tuesday filed a petition with the İstanbul Union of Craftsmen and Artisans' Chambers (İSTESOB) and called on the chamber to take action and the necessary steps to protect Turkey's national food, the simit.
The petition came after US President Barack Obama said -- at a ceremony of Greeks held on March 25 in the White House -- he admired the taste of “Greek baklava,” a sweet pastry, which has been regarded by the Turks and the Greeks as their traditional dessert for centuries.
“We will hold on to our simit and won't allow Greeks to grab our simit,” İSTESOB Chairman Faik Yılmaz said, adding that Greeks have been presenting Turkish traditional foods as their own for centuries. He emphasized that Turkish baklava has its origins in Central Asia.
The identity of the true inventor of the sweet may be buried under numerous layers of history, but more recent events suggest that Turkey may have a stronger claim than Greece to being the region's baklava heavyweight. When the Greek economy started faltering last year, famed Athenian baklava seller Epe also hit hard times. Unable to pay its bills, it turned out that Epe had not only been importing Turkish baklava for the last decade to sell in its stores, but was now deeply in debt to its supplier from the east, which ultimately ended up bailing out its Greek rival.
Meanwhile, it turns out this is not the first time that President Obama has been intimately involved with baklava. Prior to Obama's visit to Turkey in 2009, Nadir Gulu, one of Turkey's largest baklava makers, created a tray of the dessert that featured the president's likeness. In the video below, Gulu explains how the Oba-klava came to be: