When I served in the military at the naval base in downtown Haifa, at the end of my shift I would stop by a branch of Sami Bourekas at the central bus station, and grab a couple of oven-fresh pies: one with cheese, one with spinach, and if I had a lousy day, one with mashed potatoes, too. As the bus climbed up Mount Carmel, I munched on warm, flaky pies and washed them down with ayran, a chilled savory yogurt drink. Half an hour later, when I got off the bus, the greasy paper bag was empty, my uniform was speckled with golden pastry flakes, and a hint of heartburn was rising in my chest—made worse by guilt about the million calories these margarine-rich treats had cost me. Since then, I have tasted countless bourekas, infinitely better than Sami’s, but one never forgets one’s first love, even if it is slathered with margarine.
Ask any Israeli what are the most iconic local foods, and bourekas will be right there at the top, next to hummus, shakshuka, and falafel. Unlike hummus or falafel, which are local classics, bourekas and shakshuka are fascinating examples of the way Jewish immigrant foods made their way to the mainstream of Israeli gastronomy. Curiously both started their journey in Jaffa. Shakshuka merits a story of its own, and I hope to tell it one day, but today let’s talk about bourekas.
The word bourekas derives from borek (or börek or burek) in Turkish, and refers to an extensive family of savory pastries, made from thin, hand-stretched dough, like filo or yufka, and stuffed with ground meat, cheese, spinach, eggplant, or a combination thereof. Originally from Antalya in Southern Turkey, borek evolved into one of the hallmarks of Ottoman cuisine as early as the 15th century, and spread across the empire—from Armenia to Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria.
Bourekas is a plural of borek in Ladino, the language of Spanish Jews. Those who settled in the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the Spanish expulsion of 1492 adopted this Ottoman delicacy into their kitchen, and even added their own variant: bourekitas (small bourekas in Ladino). Food scholars, such as Claudia Roden, are convinced that these plump crescent-shaped pastry pockets made from short crust dough are a takeoff on empanadas, which they brought with them from Spain. Palestine was under the Ottoman rule for almost 400 years, yet bourekas arrived in the region only in the 20th century with waves of Balkan immigrants. Bulgarian Jews, who came to Israel shortly after WWII and mostly settled in Jaffa, are the most associated with boureka culture.
“In the Old Country, bourekas were never sold on the street like they are in Israel,” said Avi Cohen of Leon Bakery, one of the remaining authentic boureka shops in Jaffa. These labor-intensive treats were only baked at home and reserved for special occasions, such as shiva, brit milah, and—most famously—Shabbat breakfast. Shabbat bourekas were baked on Friday afternoons and kept warm on a heated plate or in the low oven. Black olives and haminados (brown eggs, cooked in the overnight Shabbat casserole) were the mandatory trimmings.
Orly Peli-Bronstein, an Israeli food expert and author of On the Hummus Route, recalls that her Bulgarian grandmother Marika Versano had special bourekas for every occasion: “Cheese and spinach bourekas for Shabbat, sweet bourekas doused with sugary syrup for Rosh Hashanah, leavened dough bourekas for my grandfather’s yahrzeit, and—my favorite—bourekitas with cheese and charred eggplant for Shavuot.” Like all self-respecting Balkan homemakers, she made her own dough—hand-stretched filo and a simple puff pastry layered with margarine, because it was cheaper and easier to handle than butter.
In Cohen’s family, the pastry master was Grandmother Julie, and her specialty was filo. This paper-thin dough is made from water, flour, and a little bit of oil and is manually stretched on a warm surface: “In the morning, when family members went to school or to work, Grandmother would remove the blankets and use the beds, still warm from the night’s sleep, to stretch the dough,” Avi said. A few years after the family settled in Jaffa, she started selling her excellent filo to neighbors. “My grandfather Avraham Cohen had a custom-made heated table installed in their small apartment, and it took up most of the living room,” he recalled. “He was also the delivery guy: first on a bike, later, when the business picked up, he splurged on a sidecar motorcycle.” As their reputation grew, Julie and Avraham Cohen opened a small pastry shop that sold their famous filo along with filo-based pastries—bourekas and baklava. The shop changed several locations and ended up on Oley Zion Street at the outskirts of the Jaffa Flea Market. By that time, the bakery was run by Julie and Avraham’s son Leon and was named after him. A strategically placed window enabled passersby to peek inside the bakery and, if they were lucky, to watch Leon, and later his sons Ely and Avi, stretching the filo. It was a fascinating sight: Within less than a minute, a ball of dough size of a small melon was transformed into a huge sheet, so thin you can almost see through it.
Leon Bakery and a few other boureka shops thrived in Jaffa and Lewinsky market (another stronghold of Balkan Jews), but remained largely unknown beyond the Balkan communities, until the arrival of Sami Bourekas. Sami Alcolombry and his wife, Sultana, arrived in Jaffa at the end of 1948 and supported themselves by selling bourekas on the street. At first, Sami used a baby stroller as a makeshift cart and in 1956 he opened a boureka shop on Jerusalem Boulevard, the main drag of Jaffa and the beating heart of the Bulgarian community in Israel. “If you came to Jaffa, you went to Sami Bourekas,” wrote Nathan Dunevich in his book A City Dines—One Hundred Years of Dining in Tel Aviv. Soccer fans would grab a bag of warm bourekas on their way to a game in the nearby Bloomfield stadium, couples stopped by for a drink and a pie before or after a movie in the famous Alhambra cinema, families would sit down for a boureka dinner or lunch at plastic tables scattered on the sidewalk near the busy bakery.
All bourekas were baked on the premises from margarine-based puff pastry: triangles stuffed with cheese, loops with spinach, rectangles with mashed potatoes. This division was later adopted by practically all bourekas makers.
Sami turned his modest boureka shop into a destination for Tel Avivians, but his sons Yitzik and Nisim and his son-in-law Pepo were the ones who turned them into a national sensation. Yitzik, a flamboyant bon vivant with big ideas and even bigger ego, was the driving force behind the brand. In 1976 the Alcolombrys opened their first franchise operation. At the peak of their success there were about 80 boureka shops around the country and scores of in-shop bakeries in leading supermarkets, but Yitzik Alcolombry had even grander ambitions.
In January 1983, Rozanne Gold—a chef, a food writer, and one of the earliest champions of Israeli food culture—wrote about the phenomenal success of Sami Bourekas in Restaurant Business, the leading American food trade journal. “Expansion plans include a proposed agreement with a major Italian company to set up boureka shops along its nation highways and to bring bourekas to New York City,” Gold reported. “Although boureka is not yet a household word, a nutritious meal for under $2.50 in a pleasant environment could probably make it anywhere.”
To the best of my knowledge, Sami Bourekas never made it to the States, or to Italy for that matter. In fact, in the early 1990s, despite the huge popularity of the brand, the family business started to fall apart, due to bad management, reckless overspending, and conflicts among the owners. In 1998, Sami Bourekas was sold to cover the firm’s debts. By that time, the flaky pies were already an integral part of the Israeli lifestyle. From frozen-food cases to neighborhood bakeries, from wedding receptions to government meetings, bourekas were everywhere. Claudia Roden didn’t have kind words to say about the Israeli bourekas. In The Book of Jewish Food, she described them as “mass produced in the rather degraded form.” She was, of course right, but the reality is more nuanced. When a certain food becomes so pervasive and beloved, there is a room and demand for upmarket versions. Today boutique bakeries and upscale cafes offer delectable bourekas made from the best quality buttery pastry, and traditional boureka shops, like Leon Bakery, flourish. There aren’t many left, but the ones that have survived are national treasures. Almost all boureka shops, and many cafes, serve boureka breakfasts (some offer them throughout the day). Fashioned after the Balkan Shabbat breakfast, they consist of a large boureka (usually filo-based, spiral-shaped, and filled with spinach and/or cheese), a few olives, a hard-boiled egg, and a tiny bowl of grated tomatoes. The fresh acidity of grated tomatoes is exactly what’s needed to cut through the rich cheesiness of bourekas, but it actually came from a different culinary culture.
The Yemenite counterpart of the boureka Shabbat breakfast is jachnun. This Yemenite treat is made from sheets of dough, generously layered with clarified butter (or margarine), rolled into cylinders, stacked in a large tall pot, and cooked overnight in a Shabbat oven, with a few eggs on top. Jachnun, which is even richer than bourekas, is always served with freshly grated tomatoes and a fiery bright green Yemenite condiment called z’hug. “I am pretty sure we were the first to offer grated tomatoes with bourekas,” said Avi Cohen of Leon Bakery. “Yemenite customers kept asking for them, and we obliged. The combination was so good, that it became standard. We just make sure we don’t offer grated tomatoes to elderly Bulgarians; for them the concept of grated tomatoes with bourekas is a travesty.”
Several months ago, on a photo shoot in the Galilee, I met an Arab man who owns a small takeout shop in the village of Deir al-Asad. The shops sells only two products, both made on the premises: bourekas and tabouleh. “What an interesting combination—a classic Palestinian salad and a Jewish immigrant pastry,” I said to him and he looked shocked, offended even: “Bourekas? Jewish? I don’t think so. Bourekas have been here for ages.” I don’t mean to add another log to the bonfire of “culinary appropriation,” a hot topic that keeps popping up whenever foods like hummus or falafel are touted as “Israeli.” Bourekas, without a shade of doubt, arrived in Israel less than a century ago with Balkan Jewish immigrants, but they do feel local and completely at home next to tabouleh, hummus, or labneh.
Janna Gur is a Tel Aviv-based writer and journalist. She is the author of The Book of New Israeli Food, Jewish Soul Food from Minsk and Marrakesh, and Shuk (with Einat Admony).