Mousa Khayat has never let go of his favourite childhood ritual. When Khayat was growing up in Nablus, a 2000-year-old metropolis on the West Bank, he found himself helping his neighbourhood vendors make knafeh – a famous sweet cheese pastry with an ancient past. He recreates this tradition at Knafeh Nabulseyeh, a Melbourne eatery that honours the dessert’s Palestinian roots.
“Knafeh for me is my childhood – I grew up in Nablus, I saw it made all the time, I know the way it smells,” Khayat tells SBS. “[In Palestine] during the winter, you sit down together, and everyone cooks knafeh. It is our culture. It is our identity. I’m cooking it the way they made it 300 years ago.”
Knafeh. Kunafa. Konafi. Whatever way you spell it, the dessert – made with string pastry or semolina dough, soaked in sugar syrup, layered with cheese or cream and topped with pistachio and rosewater – tells the story of the Middle East in miniature. It speaks to food cultures that are rooted in universal values such as community and generosity. But it also traces complex historical forces such as the waves of colonialism that have remade the region over thousands of years. According to an April 2018 article in The Economist, knafeh – which owes its name to the Arabic verb kanaf (to shelter) – may have been invented for the Caliph Sulayman in the 7th century. (He loved it enough to eat 20 serves every evening.) Knafeh proliferated throughout the region during the Ottoman Empire. You can find versions of the dessert – complete with regional variations – everywhere from Jordan and Lebanon to Turkey, Greece and Egypt.
Sue Keirouz has a lifelong passion for knafeh. At The Last Course, a dessert restaurant in Sydney’s Enmore, the chef and restaurateur makes the treat from scratch but adds orange blossom syrup, kataifi, fresh strawberries and Iranian pistachios. Knafeh, says Keirouz who has a Lebanese-Australian background, was a regular part of her family life.
“[Knafeh] is very popular in Lebanese culture – you … need to boil milk curds and add sugar and stir it or else it doesn’t work,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone makes it differently, but you have to eat it when it’s really hot. In Lebanon, people line up for it at 4am after coming home from the nightclub. It’s a breakfast dish – so you can have it with bread made from sesame before adding the sugar. We were seven children and mum and dad didn’t have a lot of money, so she used to serve it with bread. It was one of our favourite dishes.”
"In Lebanon, people line up for it at 4am in the morning after coming home from the nightclub."
Ameer El-Issa is the co-founder and creative director of Knafeh Bakery, the Sydney pop-up that garnered a worldwide following back in 2014 when it started serving home-made knafeh from shipping containers. He’s also an advocate for his mother’s knafeh recipe.
“For us, food is part of our culture, part of our hospitality – we are storytellers and we use knafeh as a conversation starter to connect with people,” says El-issa who has taken Knafeh Bakery to New York and, most recently, the Middle East. “My dad was born in Palestine and my mum was from Jordan and me and my siblings were all born here in Australia. In 2014, we started experimenting with our mother’s [knafeh recipe]. The knafeh that we sell is like a warm crème brûlée – it’s got a crunchy coating that you can crack into it and then we have this cheesy centre.”
Making knafeh in Melbourne isn’t without its challenges. Khayat, who uses local cheese and vegetarian ghee, says that the difference in climate can change the texture and consistency.
“I make both coarse and fine knafeh – but you have to [pay attention] to the heat, the thickness and the speed of the mixture,” he says, “We create it on the turntable. The challenge is that the climate is totally different and sometimes when it is humid, the knafeh doesn’t respond.”
Keirouz has a secret ingredient.
“I talk to my desserts when I’m stirring the mixture,” she says with a laugh. “The secret is to be patient and to have a lot of love. You have to be in a good mood. Once you add love to it, everything will be perfect.”
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.