Jo Bates tracks down the elusive sweet Middle Eastern cheese delicacy that is as at home on the breakfast table as it is on a dessert menu.
It’s hard to keep up with Yael Shochat’s enthusiasm for knafeh. She’s exuberant on the topic of almost any comestible, but the soft, gooey cheese dish holds a special place in her bank of food memories. It’s a dish she grew up eating in Haifa, Israel, and her forever “favourite thing”. It’s an obsession in Nablus, the Palestinian town from where it’s said to originate. Best served warm with kadaif (or kataifi), a finely shredded pastry, and doused in syrup, it satisfies on a soul-nourishing level.
Back in Auckland, and not keen to live without it when she emigrated in 1998, she makes her own and serves it at Ima, the restaurant she opened a decade ago in Fort Lane, Auckland. The menu describes it as a ‘soft goat’s cheese mozzarella topped with crispy kadaif pastry drenched in hot syrup & sprinkled with pistachio’. It’d be a curiosity for the uninitiated, but those who have ventured have gained, and Shochat’s never taking it off the menu.
I get her enthusiasm. The first time I tried knafeh was in Beirut, at the Rafic al Rashidi sweet shop downtown. Surrounded by vast silver catering trays laden with sweet, chewy mouthfuls of nut-studded pastries, at capacity with a morning of eating behind me and an afternoon and evening to go, once I’d bitten into it, I wasn’t about to relinquish a mouthful of knafeh. Served fresh off the tray, still warm, and sandwiched in a squidgy bread pocket, it oozed with syrup – each mouthful encasing a dab of fresh cream and chopped pistachios.
Knafeh (or knefeh as it’s also known in Lebanon – there are numerous iterations) is a beautifully flexible food that has its place at the breakfast table and on the dessert menu. The white cheese becomes gooey and stringy when warm and has a neutrality that can be dressed down with semolina for breakfast or up with shredded kataifi and cream for dessert.
While knafeh features large in Shochat’s childhood, she spent decades wondering how the hell it was made. I couldn’t fathom it either. What sort of culinary magic shazams this deliciousness onto a generic catering tray?
On a return trip to Israel during Ramadan, Shochat got talking to a street vendor who took the time to give her a rough guide to how it’s done. Humbled by the simplicity, she decided to learn the craft from an expert at Al Mokhtar Sweets in Nazareth. At Ima, she makes the knafeh with goat’s milk. “It’s fried in clarified butter to get that crunch, then very hot syrup goes over the top and melts the cheese even further, then you add the pistachios,” she says. It’s sweet, crunchy, soft and stringy all at the same time.
Beirut-based cookbook author and food historian Bethany Kehdy says knafeh stems from ‘kanaf’, the Arabic work to enclose – which it does, wrapping a variety of fillings, in a variety of crusts and moulded into a variety of shapes and sizes. Knafeh dates back to 9th-century Baghdad, she says, and from there it found its way into Ottoman palace kitchens. Kehdy does a version of their version in her cookbook The Jewelled Table (Hardie Grant). She calls it Rhubarb & Rose Mascarpone Cream Osmalieh – in the Levant, Osmalieh is a corruption of Othmalieh, meaning of the Ottomans, the empire builders who left their mark in Lebanon after invading in 1516. Kehdy substitutes the knafeh with mascarpone and cream, so if you can get your hands on kataifi (Shochat says speak to the chef at Shefco; and pastry brand Timos makes it), you can feasibly make this very pretty dish at home.
Apart from Shochat’s homemade knafeh or the baked-ricotta iteration at Gemmayze Street, the results of a nationwide social media callout suggest it’s going to be hard to find on a menu near you. Search it out if you can – it’s worth every mouthful of unctuous perfection.
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