Baklava maker calls it treat for all occasions
Wadah Bahnasy and his older brother, Mukhtar, had a strained relationship. Yet when Mukhtar traveled overseas, Wadah watched over his business and took care of his family, even acting as a chauffeur. Upon returning from a trip to the Middle East, Mukhtar dispatched Wadah to mail a large box of Middle Eastern pastries to a friend in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he gave Wadah's wife Nobuko and infant son Basel six measly pieces of baklava.
Wadah was so offended by the gesture that he returned the sweets untouched and ranted, "I swear to God I'm going to make a baklava factory!"
That was 28 years ago.
Since then, Wadah Bahnasy, 59, has made pastries for the late King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, the venerable Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco and most recently, 70 Saudi princes who convened in San Francisco. Bahnasy ships his Oasis Baklava all over the United States, exports to Japan and has loyal customers who drive to his Belmont warehouse from as far as Walnut Creek and San Luis Obispo. Oasis Baklava was also carried in 18 Bay Area Price Clubs for 13 years.
Bahnasy's mother and grandmother did not make baklava when he was growing up in Damascus; they would buy it from the bakeries. When he arrived in the United States in 1968, there were only a couple of places in the Bay Area that made it. "I could not eat it, with Crisco and syrup dripping." He believes that the Damascene style has less syrup and is not as heavy as other Middle Eastern versions. The syrup is less sweet, as it is made with sugar instead of honey, and he blends margarine with butter to cut down on the richness.
In addition to the signature pistachio baklava, the 10 items in Oasis Baklava's product line include greibeh butter cookies , triangular warbat filo pastries filled with custard cream and kanafeh, a warm cheese and shredded filo pie with sugar syrup.
No stranger to the culinary industry, Bahnasy had worked as a dishwasher and cook in the Bay Area and also owned a Middle Eastern restaurant in Palo Alto. He taught himself to make baklava in 1977 by reading and practicing. He was encouraged by fellow residents at their San Francisco apartment complex, where his baklava was a hit at the monthly potluck socials. When he started making baklava in earnest, "I thought he was joking," said Nobuko. Bahnasy would make the pastries at night and go out during the day to sell them. For several months, there was syrup and butter all over their tiny kitchen. "She was going to kick me out of the house for making a mess," he said.
Fortunately, Bahnasy was able to find a space at a Burlingame warehouse. His landlord, Wally Seelos of Club Catering, practically waived the rent for the fledgling business. Bahnasy made baklava on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and made deliveries on Mondays and Fridays. Within two months, he had secured 300 accounts and was able to hire help. After eight years, the Bahnasys moved Oasis Baklava to its current location in Belmont, where it has been in operation for two decades.
The 3,500 square-foot facility houses giant stockpots of melted butter and syrup, stainless steel work tables and a six-shelf oven that can bake 48 sheet trays of baklava at a time, each tray yielding 40 pieces. One hundred pounds of butter are used daily, brushed upon 33 to 36 layers of Athens filo, which Bahnasy believes is the best brand. The Bahnasys and their two employees make all the pastries by hand with the help of an industrial mixer and nut grinders. For the Japanese palate, Bahnasy uses even less sugar in the syrup and less syrup in general. He is also working on baklava for diabetics with whole wheat filo and sugar-free syrup.
About 60 percent of his clientele is foreign-born. He has many Greek customers and is proud that some of them find his baklava to be better than their grandmothers'. Meanwhile, his Chinese customers are crazy about the barazik sesame cookies.
As Bahnasy's customers can attest, baklava is appropriate for just about any occasion -- Christmas, Ramadan, weddings, births and funerals. It's also a great everyday treat -- one Japanese customer mixes baklava and ice cream to make cookies and cream. Bahnasy has a customer who ordered baklava when his wife bought a new Toyota so they could pass out sweets to guests who came over to say congratulations. Two weeks later, the customer placed another order for baklava. Bahnasy asked, "Did you buy another car?" The customer said his wife got in a car accident driving her new car and was in the hospital so he needed to give something to the well-wishers and hospital staff. There's always an occasion for baklava.