DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — First you mix at least three different kinds of flour with water, making sure that you end up with a dense milky liquid. Let the liquid rest for six to eight hours, mixing it only at the end. Then you drop the mix on the special cast-iron stove that spins it. The mix becomes crisp, golden colored threads. You gather a heap in your hand and twist it into a circular shape that Turks call “burma.” Walnuts and pistachios are added to the center. Sweet sherbet is poured on top, and the kadaif, also known as shredded wheat dessert, is done.
Turks, Greeks and Middle Easterners claim kadaif (or kadayif or kataifi), a delicious dessert that can be made into different shapes. In the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, locals believe that the dessert was first baked in the Armenian houses of the cosmopolitan city in the 18th century. As the dessert became popular, the Armenians taught it to the Muslim population in the 19th century, mainly migrants from Bingol, a small city to the north, who had come to Diyarbakir looking for jobs.
“My grandfather Riza Ansin learned the art of making kadaif from an Armenian chef called Agop,” Ahmet Altunay, the third generation of a family of kadaif makers, told Al-Monitor. “After the Armenians left [Diyarbakir in the beginning of the 20th century], we took over the business. Nowadays, all the kadaif makers are from Bingol.”
He added, “When my grandfather died in 1990, he was 85 years old. Our family has been making and selling kadaif for more than 100 years now. My grandfather taught my father, and my father taught me and my four brothers. I am currently teaching my own children how to make kadaif. I take them to the shop the weekends and tell them to look and learn. They will end up running the business one day.”
Altunay said that his father taught many bakers, most of them from the Gurpinar neighborhood in Bingol, how to make kadaif. “There are quite a few kadaif makers in Ankara and Istanbul, and most of them learned the trade from my father. My brother is one of the best kadaif makers of Turkey. When a kadaif maker has a problem he cannot solve or has a large order he cannot handle alone, he comes to my brother for help,” he added.
Altunay said that kadaif is made with only a little butter, so it is not heavy on the stomach. “Even if you ate a whole kilo, you would not feel stuffed because it is not greasy,” he said. The six Altunay sweet shops produce about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of kadaif a day. “Gaziantep is known for its baklava and Diyarbakir is known for its kadaif,” said Altunay. “If someone pays a visit to Diyarbakir, people expect him to return home with half a kilo of kadaif.”
Diyarbakir Municipality managed to trademark the round “burma kadaif” in November 2017 as a local specialty, just like city’s other two best known products, watermelon and a special cheese. But the people who make Diyarbakir’s local dessert are all from Bingol, said Altunay. “Our whole neighborhood makes kadaif,” Altunay explained. “This is because our people, once they learn a trade, they teach others. When you look at the neighboring village, half are kadaif makers and the other half are bakers.”
Altunay’s business is growing, with a new branch in Ankara and prospects for another in Istanbul. He’s shipped kadaif all the way to the United States. “There was an Armenian who moved to New York from Diyarbakir. One day, he called and asked us to send to the United States 10 kilos [22 pounds] of kadaif. We told him it would be too expensive, but he asked us to send it anyway. So we sent him 10 kilos of kadaif — the shipping costs were twice as much as the cost of the sweet. We send the dessert to most of the European countries. We have a customer who works with Boeing and we ship him his kadaif wherever he is.”
The kadaif bakers are mostly men, but the municipality of Diyarbakir offered a training course for women in 2014. Some 50 women were trained, but very few ended up working in the business. Altunay said it’s a difficult job and often physically too exhausting for women. “The revolving oven has to be 100 degrees Celsius [212 F] all the time. It is no easy job working with it the whole day,” he said.