Knafeh or kunafa – a savoury-sweet confection of gooey cheese, shredded pastry and syrup – is said to hail from the Palestinian city of Nablus, although the evidence to support that claim is patchy. One of the earliest references is in the writings of a 14th-century Arab historian, who wrote that Caliph Sulayman (AD 674-717) from the Umayyad dynasty liked it so much that he ate 20 portions of it every evening. According to another legend, it was invented to stop a prince from getting hungry while he fasted for Ramadan.
Under the Ottoman empire, knafeh spread further afield. Today it can be found as far west as Turkey and as far east as Azerbaijan. Each country has its own subtle variation on the recipe. The syrup is made from orange-blossom water in Lebanon and rosewater in Syria. Armenian cooks add cinnamon, and Egyptians use clotted cream instead of cheese. But Nablus will always be knafeh’s spiritual home and the dish is often referred to as “knafeh nablusiyeh”.
One of the most famous knafeh sellers is Habibeh in Jordan, which was founded in the late 1940s by two brothers from Nablus. In downtown Amman, under Habibeh’s blue and white sign, peckish shoppers feast on slabs of warm knafeh, shiny with syrup. Although it is often eaten on the go, knafeh is also associated with special occasions. A huge round tray of the syrupy treat, shared with family and friends, is a way to celebrate getting married, buying a house or winning a promotion.
Most knafeh is shop-bought these days, but it’s not hard to make your own. First, prepare a liberal quantity of syrup by mixing equal amounts of sugar and water. You can find frozen kataifi in most Middle Eastern supermarkets, but filo dough will do. Use sharp kitchen scissors to cut it into fine strips and coat with ghee or clarified butter (if you leave in the milk solids, the pastry will burn). Cover a large metal dish or cake tin with the remaining butter and press half the pastry into the bottom and up the sides. A decent layer will keep the cheese from oozing out in the oven.
Traditionally, a soft, white, sheep’s cheese is used as a filling. Lebanese-American cookery writer Bethany Khedy suggests using a mixture of mozzarella (fresh is best) and mascarpone for the closest approximation of the silky, stretchy melt of a Palestinian cheese. Other recipes propose ricotta as an alternative.
Spread the cheeese mix evenly over the layer of dough. Cover with a second layer of kataifi pastry and gently press. Bake in the oven until the pastry is crisp and golden. Turn out from the pan and serve sprinkled with chopped pistachios and lavished with syrup. Eat while warm and preferably while wearing a napkin to catch any sticky droplets.