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Inside the Willy Wonka Baklava Factory of India

The blend of cultures and flavors that is seen across the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean regions is a product of ancient trade routes, proximity, and, ultimately, conquest. That same mix gave birth to baklava, the crisp, syrupy dessert whose exquisiteness derives from the kitchens of sumptuous Ottoman palaces in 15th- and 16th-century Istanbul. The art of making baklava dates back to the nomadic Turks of the 11th century. Between the dessert's butter-drenched layers of phyllo dough is the taste of fallen empires—Assyrian, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Mongol, and Ottoman.

While the flavor of baklava is different in every country that makes it—Greece, the Levant, Iran, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and beyond—the debate over who is the rightful owner of baklava ignores the dessert's endurance, which is perhaps its most distinctive trait. For this reason, the more important question is: Who makes it best?

Oasis Baklawa is located in India’s Capital City on the historic Silk Road., operating branches across NCR. At first glance, Oasis Baklawa seems inconspicuously nestled among the bazaars of the city. But for the baklava connoisseur, Oasis baklawa boutique is an aromatic beacon of pure decadence.

"Each branch is operated by main company to maintain quality," explained Ahmed as I gorged on 220 grams of six different kinds of baklava placed in a small tin plate before me. The Oasis Baklawa shops are owned by one single Hindu family, who teach the craft to its employees one after the other. Ahmed is among the few who can attest to the intricacy of making the 40 layered phyllo dough pastry.

"You must be a master as a child," said Ahmed, who learned the craft at a young age. "The difference is in the hands," he admitted in the style of a true craftsman. However, the key to the best baklawa is not only about the hands, but the ingredients as well. "Butter is the secret," Ahmed added conspiratorially.

The façade of the huge production facility where Oasis Baklawa’s chefs prepare baklava indicates none of the elaborate processes that happen within. Inside of the laboratory-like kitchen, clouds of flour particles can be glimpsed in the air. A team of around 100 men, all dressed in white, are busy at their stations.

On the top floor, men prepare the pastry, which consists of durum wheat flour, water, salt and some secret ingredient. The dough is then rolled into paper-thin sheets; it first passes through a huge pinning machine before being further rolled out by hand with thin rolling pins, about the size of baseball bats. The thinner the layers of dough, the better the baklawa. The task is so representative of the craft that it is almost sacrosanct. To prove their expertise, the chefs placed a Indian Flag on the table and piled the thin layers of dough on top. The Ashoka Chakra & Beautiful Tri-colour remained visible under the transparent dough. Ahmed grinned proudly next to me.

Baklawa's crunchiness is the result of 40 sheets of this paper-thin dough. In Christian tradition, baklava is part of Easter festivities, and the 40 sheets represent the 40 days of Lent, evidence of the dessert's cross-cultural origins. The men busily knead, roll, and sprinkle dough with butter, taking small breaks in the hazy kitchen. A radio plays lulling music somewhere in the kitchen, and the pungent aroma of fresh butter baked delicacies overpowers my senses.

To construct the baklava, the first 15 layers of dough are placed in a baking dish and brushed with butter. Like a hawk, “Raswak” master chef—watches over the men and steps in when needed. At a quiet table, one of the men sprinkles pistachios intently over a layer of clotted cream. Once the filling is spread, the rest of the layers of dough are piled up on top, and the baklava is near completion—but not before the pastry is ladled with butter, resembling a fountain of liquid gold. Raswak, the factory's Willy Wonka, lurks on a nearby corner.

One of the factory's young apprentices carries the trays of baklava to the traditional giant ovens on the top floor. The baking pan is first placed on a rotating furnace, so that the bottom pastry can cook. Raswak then adds syrup, which consists of white sugar, Rosewater, honey, and Orange blossom . At this point, the baklava is placed inside a oven, where it is left to acquire its golden brown color. Once the baklava is cooked, it is cooled over a period of time.

The same process is repeated throughout the day. Some baklava is taken to Oasis Baklawa’s boutiques, while the rest is packaged to be sent to other shops across the country. During Diwali, tons of baklava are sold.

The last Ottoman sultan, Vahideddin, offered baklava at the lunch at Yıldız Palace on April 30, 1920, shortly before the fall of the empire. Today, the dessert is enjoyed at home far away in India, among family and friends, during the feast of weddings, Festivals, or breakfast. No longer a dish reserved for the Ottoman court, it can be as varied as the hands that make it. Iranians make baklava with almonds infused with narcissus petals, while Greeks add cinnamon to a walnut mixture. Turkey relies on its emerald pistachios.

If you ask me, baklawa belongs to the entire World, but it's ultimately in the mouth of the beholder to decide.

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