Food by VICE

A Trip to the West Bank's Cheesy Dessert Capital

I recently traveled to the West Bank town of Nablus, the home of one of the Middle East's favorite desserts: a cheesy, obscenely sweet pastry known as knafeh.

by Ilan Ben Zion
Aug 24 2015, 6:44pm

Fotos vom Autor.

Why risk life and limb in a crazed cab ride, break Israeli law, and conceal my Jewish and Israeli identity, all for a snack? Because knafeh in the West Bank city of Nablus—legendary hometown of the dessert—is worth the schlep.

The cheesy pastry of baked semolina drenched in simple syrup is a mainstay of local cuisine. "You can get it in Jerusalem. Why are you going all the way to Nablus?" my legitimately concerned mother had asked me before my trip.

Tensions in the West Bank ran high after a Palestinian home was torched last month near Nablus, leaving a father and son dead; retaliatory attacks on Israelis followed. But no amount of internecine conflict could keep me from getting into a shared taxi with no air conditioning in the middle of August to go to Nablus and try it.

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The alleyway leading to Al-Aqsa.

Nablus locals are crazy about their knafeh—it's an obsession. "I have friends who make a knafeh sandwich," Zeid, a Nablus native, tells me. "They put it inside the pita bread."

Even in Jerusalem, two hours south of Nablus and across an imposing checkpoint, the mythical qualities of the Nablusi knafeh were rumored to far surpass all others.

In recent years it's grown increasingly popular among Israelis. Jerusalem's version of the dessert entails crunchy vermicelli, fluorescent orange food coloring, and an obscene amount of sweet syrup. One British-born chef in Jaffa even transformed the treat with a slew of experimental additions: halva, cinnamon and lemon zest, Belgian chocolate, or—most creatively—a savory version with dried tomatoes, oregano, and balsamic vinegar.

The traditional and most authentic version, however, hails from Nablus: soft knafeh made of toasted semolina—baked over a gas flame until crunchy on one side and just baked within—goat cheese, and vast quantities of syrup. I resolved to go to Nablus to try the real deal.

Deep in the heart of Nablus's Ottoman-built khan—a mad warren of apothecaries, butchers, and knickknack merchants, just around the corner from the city's iconic clock tower—is Al-Aqsa Sweets, a hole-in-the-wall, locals-only bakery that produces just one product: knafeh.

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Layering the cheese on the semolina.

Hanging over the alley it dominates is a sign depicting the Dome of the Rock and, plastered on, a flyer with a youthful Yasser Arafat. The small seating area at the back of the shop isn't enough to accommodate the constant demand, so customers stand eagerly in the alleyway beneath graffiti celebrating the Hamas terrorist group that's been there for years.

Knafeh recipes are closely guarded trade secrets, kept within families and businesses. "Like a doctor has his schooling, we have ours," says Kemal, a mountain of a man who's been making knafeh for 40 years. With a grin exposing several missing teeth, he asserted that all the confections are his favorites.

He spreads the golden semolina evenly on a massive pan, then crumbles a hard white cheese that looks like popcorn on top. The native goat cheese is produced in villages surrounding Nablus and is known by the city's name. Once arranged, the pan is placed over a burner, where the bottom layer of semolina begins to toast.

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The knafeh gets drenched in sweet syrup.

A half-burned cigarette dangles from the lips of Abu Mohammad al-Shantir, purveyor of Al-Aqsa Sweets. As he places a second pan on top, the knafeh is flipped. After a few minutes on the burner, the hard cheese melts into a uniform layer.

The knafeh is then turned over again to give the semolina one last blast of flame and an essential caramelized crunch. Like the perfect chocolate cookie, superlative knafeh combines and balances savory and sweet, crunchy and gooey.

With utmost care, the tray is lifted off the stove. With a cry of "bismillah!"—Arabic for "in the name of God!"—Kemal hoists it over his head, reverses the pan a third time, and sets it cheese-side down.

Abu Mohammad, cigarette still perched beneath his bristly mustache, pours a copious quantity of syrup (which is usually flavored with rose water or orange blossom, though he won't reveal its exact contents) over the entire tray, saturating it with sweetness.

Within seconds of a fresh tray arriving from the kitchen, a small throng has already amassed, salivating with anticipation as Abu Mohammad slices and serves still-steaming plates of knafeh. In a given day, Al-Aqsa will go through anywhere from 150 to a staggering 200 platters of knafeh, Kemal says. In just 20 minutes on a frenetic weekday afternoon, Al-Aqsa burns through three of the massive trays.

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Lining up for a taste of Al-Aqsa's knafeh.

At just NIS 4 (about US $1) per plate, it's all too tempting to go for seconds.

Barely has the knafeh slid delightfully into my gullet when Zeid's portents come true: a man walks up with two pieces of pita bread, and without even exchanging words with Al-Shantir, is given two knafeh sandwiches, with extra syrup, to go.

Across town at Damascus Sweets, a chain with three branches in Nablus, traditional soft knafeh is accompanied by baklava, another regional favorite. Owner Mejdi Tamimi says the bakery's name is derived from Nablus's antique nickname, known as such as far back as when 10th-century Arab traveler Muqaddasi visited: "Little Damascus."

"Every city is known for something," he says as he hands me a slice of knafeh (my stomach already at breaking point). "Knafeh is quintessentially Palestinian and uniquely Nablusi," he maintains.

Compared to the fresh-baked Al-Aqsa knafeh, however, the Damascene version falls short of the mark. The cheese is chewier, the syrup sickly sweet, and the crust lacks the crunch.

Tamimi insists there were no additives, even when I ask what the small red flakes in the pastry are and what gives it that unmistakable preservative aftertaste. It was like difference between home-baked brownies and Entenmann's.

Should I ever return to Nablus, I'll find my way back to Al-Aqsa.