So I was passing the time tonight by listening to Harry and his wife Ziva’s always-amusing podcast, and in their latest edition they spent a good bit of time talking about a certain luridly orange Arab dessert: knafeh (Harry is pro, Ziva anti).
It is difficult to do justice to the concept of knafeh with mere words, but I will try anyway: imagine two layers of a mysterious super sweet shredded sort of chewy orange substance, then imagine crammed between the two layers a bunch of sweetened melted goat cheese. Also keep in mind that goat cheese is noted for generally tasting and smelling like it was squeezed from the udders of small, filthy animals with questionable eating habits and then left to ferment in a cave for a few months, which is of course absolutely true. If your mind had not yet come to associate “rank cheese” with “sugary, honey-drenched dessert product,” remember that you probably live somewhere cool and not historically malarial.
While I am not sure of knafeh’s pedigree, I’m sure it goes something like this: on a day lost in the mists of time in the region called Palestine, the day after some sort of big wedding party or something, an Arab woman realized the uneaten goat cheese had turned a little bit south, if you know what I mean. So, being an enterprising woman, she brushed the coating of flies off, melted it down and covered it with stale flour and drenched the whole megillah in honey so nobody would notice. Thus, knafeh was born. The world’s best knafeh (if a qualifier like “best” can be applied to it) comes from Nablus, which probably had better indigenous food when it was still called Shechem.
I had my first experience with knafeh about a month ago, when a friend of mine took me on a hummus-oriented expedition to the nearby Arab town of Tirah. As way of encouragement, on the way he told me, “During the Intifada, we couldn’t go to Tirah. They would shoot us.” Armed with that handy bit of info, we went into Tirah, which is actually very similar to a typical Israeli Jewish town (down to the big cut-out letter sign on the road into town that every Israeli community worth its salt has) – except the architecture was worse (and trust me, Israeli architecture is not glorious), the auto body shops were cheaper, the Tapuzina billboards were in Arabic and most of the cut-out letters on the town sign had been stolen. He pulled up to a restaurant and said, “I’m going to get an Arab pastry. It’s called knafeh. You’ll like it.” So then I had plopped before me a styrofoam platter of greasy, bright orange slices of knafeh. I took one bite, swallowed with considerable effort, and then offered a quick prayer of thanks to God for being good enough to make Coca-Cola and endow it with the magical ability to wash down that flourescent abortion of a dessert. I have since stopped trusting this friend about anything, including the time and frank appraisals of the weather.
But maybe I’ve made you curious with my knafeh-bashing, and you’d like to try for yourself. Well, here’s a recipe:
1 lb. Knafeh dough (Katif dough)
2 lbs. sweet cheese (Syrian or Ricotta)
1 to 1 1/2 cups rendered butter
1/2 cup of sugar
1 tbsp. Mazaher (orange blossom water)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 tsp. of Knafeh coloring (optional)
1/4 cup pistachios, chopped (optional)
2 cup thin Attar
I can only imagine the kind of conversations that take place in Nablus and other Palestinian cities. “Honey, on your way home from work can you pick up some groceries? Please, this time don’t forget the Knafeh coloring, and if, so help me God, you get the thick attar again…”
The recipe comes from this website, which appears to be a Palestinian economic improvement organization trying to bring tourism to Palestinian areas, singing the praises of all things Palestinian while fastidiously ignoring the
Zionist entity elephant in the room (actually, that’s not fair – they do acknowledge the centrality of Jerusalem to Jews, which is certainly a departure from general PA policy). I’m all for the economic improvement of Palestine (provided the money gets used for hospitals and schools and stuff like that and not, you know, Hamas), but when a website not only guarantees that Palestine is absolutely safe (their words, not mine) and sings the praises of Ramallah, you gotta wonder a little. My Let’s Go guidebook, also in on the “Ramallah is cool!” movement, calls it “a breezy mountain town” and “the hub of Palestinian feminist activity.” The website refers to its “trendy coffee shops and jazz clubs.”
I can see it now. “Hey everyone, thank you, thank you, you’ve been a wonderful audience…give it up for Abdullah on the drums again…anyway, this next song we’re going to play is an old classic, an old Cole Porter standard brilliantly recast by Thelonius Monk in the late ’50s on the Columbia label…it’s called ‘Push the Yahoud into the Sea’…okay, waahid, itnein, talaata, arba’a…”
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah. Knafeh is gross. And no official word yet whether the consumption of such a flagrantly orange treat constitutes an anti-disengagement statement. Me, I’ll just stick with the baklava.