Three years ago, Mousa Khayat was a dental technician, but he gave it up to pursue the far sweeter proposition of setting up the first restaurant in Australia to serve a truly authentic version of a classic Palestinian dessert.
Now that dream has become a reality, with people coming from all over Melbourne to try Nablus knafeh, the specialty dish at Khayat’s Knafeh Nabulseyeh, located in a suburban shopping village in Melbourne's south east.
The cooked pastry nests are then gathered together, mixed with honeyed cheese and sprinkled with nuts.
It’s very much a family affair, with Mousa’s children all honing the special technique required to make the dish, which involves piping a shower of filigree-thin pastry batter onto a huge spinning turntable. The cooked pastry nests are then gathered together, mixed with honeyed cheese and sprinkled with nuts.
While not as well-known as other Middle Eastern desserts, such as baklava, for example, knafeh has, in recent times, made something of a name for itself in Sydney, mainly due to the success of Knafeh Bakery, which operates out of a roaming shipping container and features bearded bakers who not only cook but sing.
Nevertheless, Mousa maintains that within Australia he is alone in making the traditional Nablus version, an ancient dish with origins that stretch back to the 15th century.
“There are guys around making knafeh, but it’s not the knafeh,” he says. “We make the original recipe.”
The father of three, who has lived in Australia for more than 30 years, established the small eatery two years ago, naming it Knafeh Nabulseyeh after the dish that is slowly gathering fame across Melbourne.
“Some people come in here and get very emotional,” he said, adding that customers are now coming in from all over Melbourne to try knafeh or re-live memories of their homeland.
Popular throughout the Levant, this syrup-soaked cheese dessert is commonly encased with kataifi pastry, but this recipe from Sydney's modern Lebanese restaurant Embers Mezze Bar uses a crushed Corn Flakes and semolina mixture instead. The golden crust, topped with rose petals and pistachios, barely contains the molten cheese centre.
It was while still working as a dental technician that Mousa began to pursue an ambition to reproduce a dish that did more than simply pay homage to the original. To do that, he first had to not only design but weld a suitable machine – then put in hours of practice.
“Knafeh a complicated dish to make,” he explains. “The plate is very, very hot and the mixture has to come out at exactly the right speed and consistency.”
There were times when the only result of Mousa’s efforts was laughter from his wife, Saida. “I had to throw so many kilograms of flour to get it right,” he recalls. “You need patience, and also belief.”
His compulsion to get it right comes from powerful roots; as a child exploring the streets and alleys of Nablus, he was fascinated by the traditional food vendors. “I was a very curious child and used to love watching things being made. As I got older, I would step in and lend a hand wherever I could.”
After a year and a half of self-teaching, the adult Mousa realised the only way ahead was to travel back to Palestine, to his old neighbourhood.
He spent just over a month there. “I was learning with the guys who have been doing this for 50, 60 years,” he says. “In the end, they said – ‘good luck, just fly back and do it’.”
In 2015, he did just that, opening a family restaurant and installing a formidable 180-centimetre copper turntable, this time a commercial version built to his own specifications.
The front seating area is overlooked by an atmospheric life-size photo. It depicts a Nablus street scene, drawing patrons into another place and time. “I walked through that street so many times in my childhood,” says Mousa. “When I look at this photo I don’t just see it, I can smell it.”
Each of the three Khayat children, aged 21, 18 and 14, are keen to carry on the legacy. “This is definitely a family business, and the skill will be passed on,” he says.
“This dish deserves to be on the menu in Melbourne.”
74 Poath Road, Hughesdale, Vic
Monday 3 – 8pm
Wednesday and Sunday 12.30 – 8pm
Thursday 12.30 – 9pm
Friday – Saturday 12.30pm – 2am