Kunafa Nest: The Remaking of Gaza Strip Famous Sugar treat

Chef Saurabh Udinia (Corporate Executive Chef, Farzi Café) on one of the finest Palestinian Ramadan and Eid sweetmeats – and what makes it one of the brilliant treats to have this Eid

By Madhulika Dash

If you ever tasted the Seviyan Ka Muzzafar and called it the gourmet version to the Sheer Khurma, then the one Arab world sweetmeat that you should try is the Kunafa. A beloved Middle Eastern sugar-soaked pastry that goes by many names including Knafeh, Kunafa, Kanafe, Kunefe, it’s one of the few delicacies that once marked the Arab trade route from Gaza to Egypt, but now is a rare find outside the tiny coastal enclave of Palestine. And yet, it remains one of the few things that sets the benchmark of a good sweetmeat maker even today.

The Story

Originating around the West Bank city of Nablus somewhere between the 10th century or 15th century, the credit of this brilliant dessert masterpiece is shared between two different caliphates, in the Umayyad Levant under Muawiyah I and in Fatimid Egypt under Khalifa Abdel-Malek Bin Marawan. Legend has it that the treat though developed as part of the illustrious sweetmeat legacy of the Middle East came to prominence when it was prescribed by the hakims as the “eat” that would satisfy the voracious appetites of their caliphs during Ramadan. Another theory suggests its creation that won over the Sunni Egyptian population.

But what many historians agree to is its role as a celebratory treat that was had both as part of the Suhoor (the pre-dawn meal had before fasting) and Eid festivity.

The Build Up

Made with long, thin strands of shredded phyllo dough known as kataifi, the masterpiece is a three-layer, sugar-coated, outrageously rich dessert. It begins with a sheet of kataifi or semolina vermicelli. This bottom layer is topped with either clotted cream, which is preferred in Egypt, or cheese, which is typically in Gaza. A generous later of nuts and dry fruit form the second layer, with another layer of the shredded pastry or the vermicelli. The kunafa while is baked today to get that morning sun-like golden hue, traditionally the pastry was fried. After the kunafa is cooked, honey or flavoured syrup (rose, orange blossom or date) are drizzled on top to give it that vibrant orange colour. This is served with a sheet of crushed pistachio on the top.

There are three schools of knafeh or kunafa that one usually finds in the Middle Eastern strip. The khishnah is defined by its seviyan -like crust; na’mah which has a fine texture and is made from semolina dough; and the mhayara which takes the best of khishnah and mhayara. But if you are looking for the finest then it is a variety called the Knafa Arabiya or Ghazawiya (Arabic or Gazan) is a savoury-sweet twist, made richer with the signature Gaza flavours of nuts, nutmeg and cinnamon replacing the cheese.

The Finale

For my version, I took the mhayara as my muse. The reason for this was the broad canvas that the two distinct styles provide while recreating a beloved Middle Eastern treat. The other of course was the ingredients that one could experiment with to get that sweetness right along with the texture.

To get that I decided to change the whole presentation into a nest that could showcase the different layers with ease and how each one adds on to create this rich, sweet mouthful. The beauty of this outrageously brilliant sweetmeat is that while it is light on the palate, almost cloud-like, it is calorie dense – and can fill you up for hours. Little wonder it was chosen as a Suhoor must for the prince and princess. One good piece and you would feel hungry only with the moon.

Recreating Kunafa with a Twist
Here's my little trick to create this Arabian sweet