Why The Knafeh Is The Best Middle Eastern Dish You've Never Had
Image Credit: Knafeh | Image Credit: Freepik.com

Trays lined with thin fried noodles that are soaked in sugar syrup and topped with pistachios have suddenly been taking over Instagram's explore pages all over the country, following in the footsteps of pandemic favorites like Dalgona coffee and sourdough. Just what is this preparation, and where did it come from? Read on to find out.

The dessert in question is knafeh, also known as kunafa, a Middle Eastern specialty similar to baklava. The dish is the latest addition to a trend that has seen the re-emergence of several ancient foods, from sourdough to bone broth. The kunafa is a relatively young food, with the first mention of the dessert dating back to 10th-century Egypt, where the dish was regularly prepared in the kitchens of the many Caliphs of the region, usually as part of Ramadan feasts. Knafeh prepared during this time period used qatayef (a dessert similar to a pancake) for the base and an attar flavored with lemon and roses as a sweetener.

It would take well over three centuries for the dish’s next major revision. Royal cooks would begin to use a thinner batter for the preparation, making for a base of stacked crepes. This version of the dish also saw the addition of another major component: cheese. The inclusion of cheese served two purposes: to complement the attar and to add structure to the dish. Although there is no written record of the type of cheese used for the task, most food historians believe that the cooks used a smooth cheese similar to ricotta or fresh paneer. The late middle ages would see the introduction of several variants of the dish, which are the most similar to knafeh sold across the globe today. The crepe base was replaced with one made with kataifi, a thin noodle made using the same batter. The noodle, like many other staple foods, is said to have been invented by chance when a cook waved a strainer containing a small amount of crepe batter over a vat of hot oil. The kataifi almost immediately replaced crepes as the base for knafeh, since the former did not require the addition of cheese, therefore making it more inexpensive and accessible to the masses.

Fast forward to today, when there are several types of knafeh that are prepared all over the world. Almost all variants feature three components: a fried noodle base, a syrup, and crumbled pistachios. We’ve compiled a list of the more popular iterations of the desert below.

Kanafeh Nabulsieh: This version of knafeh is the most popular in the Middle East. It consists of a base of kataifi over a bed of mild, melting cheese. The cheese of choice for the task is most often a round of cheddar or a block of processed cheese. The preparation is usually made in a large batch, cut to size, doused with attar, and topped with crumbled pistachios to serve.

Kadayıf: This Ottoman take on the knafeh is sold all over Greece and Turkey. The kataifi is molded into a shallow round before it is fried in a copper pan. Two such rounds are used to create the base for the dish, held together by a soft cheese such as Urfa or Hatay. Attar is poured on the rounds while they are still warm, followed by a generous topping of crumbled pistachio.

Kunafa Mabroomeh: This version of the dish is similar to rolls of dragon’s beard candy, or Pootharekulu. Kanfeh made in this style takes the form of rolls, which are similar in shape and size to the mabroomeh date with which it shares its name. The rolls may be stuffed with cheese, crumbled pistachio, and/or other flavorings, such as rose, Nutella, fruit syrups, et al. The kanafeh may be dipped in thick attar if it is unflavored. This is the most common type of knafeh sold around the world, and it is frequently found as part of ready-to-eat Arab sweet platters.

Gaza Knafeh: The knafeh that is sold on the Gaza Strip is unique in the fact that it uses kataifi made using bulgur, or parboiled cracked wheat. The batter contains cinnamon powder, which gives the rounds a dark hue once fried. Gaza Knafeh is usually cut to scale and doused with an attar that is flavored with rose petals and local spices. The dish may be topped with pecans or pistachios.

Kadaif: This style of knafeh is substantially different from the others mentioned on the list since it uses vermicelli noodles instead of kataifi. The dish may take on several forms: portioned rectangles, rounds, or even small cones. Knafeh made in this style is coated with a thin attar and generously stuffed or topped with crumbled pistachios.