|Alternative names||kunafeh, kunafa, knafeh, konafi, etc.|
|Place of origin||Middle East|
|Region or state||Levant, Arab world, Turkey, Greece, Balkans, Caucasus|
|Main ingredients||dough, sugar, cheese, almonds, pistachios, rose water, kaymak, etc.|
Kanafeh (Arabic: كُنافة, [kunaːfa] (
In Arabic, kanafeh (also knafeh, kunafa or similar spellings) may refer to the string pastry itself, or to the entire dessert dish. In Turkish, the string pastry is known as tel kadayıf, and the cheese-based dessert that uses it as künefe. In the Balkans, the shredded dough is similarly known as kadaif, and in Greece as kataifi, and is the basis of various dishes rolled or layered with it, including dessert pastries with nuts and sweet syrups.
One of the most well-known preparations of kanafeh is knafeh nabilsiyeh, which originated in the Palestinian city of Nablus, and is the most representative and iconic Palestinian dessert. Knafeh nabilsiyeh uses a white-brine cheese called Nabulsi. It is prepared in a large round shallow dish, the pastry is colored with orange food coloring, and sometimes topped with crushed pistachio nuts.
The Arabic word kunāfah (Arabic: كنافة) comes from the Coptic Egyptian word kenephiten, a bread or cake. Early attestations are found in Egyptian stories in Alf laylaẗ wa-laylaẗ, the One Thousand and One Nights. Another view is that it comes from a Semitic root with a meaning of side or wing, from the Arabic kanafa, to flank or enclose. According to etymologist Sevan Nişanyan, the Turkish word tel kadayıfı (string-pancake or string-crêpe), referring to the vermicelli-like pastry used in kanafeh and other dishes, is based on the Arabic word qatayif (a pancake or crêpe), and appears at the latest in 1501 in a Turkish-Persian dictionary.
A common story is that the dish was created, and prescribed by doctors, to satisfy the hunger of caliphs during Ramadan. The story is variously said to have happened in Fatimid Egypt, or in the Umayyad Caliphate in Syria. It is also reported to have been mentioned in writing as early as the 10th century, and to be of Fatimid origin. However, dishes mentioned in historical texts are not necessarily the same as the modern versions of kanafeh.
Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's 10th-century Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), a collection of Arabic and Persian recipes and food advice of the Abbasid caliphs, mentions neither the word kunāfah, nor a description of the dish as it is known today. However, it does feature a chapter on desserts made with the related qatāyif, meaning crêpes, from which the Turkish word kadayıf and Greek word kataïfi derive. In one recipe, qatāyif are stuffed with nuts, deep-fried, and topped with honey-sugar syrup, which is essentially unchanged in today's version. Also described are large thin crêpes resembling fabric, called ruqāq, cooked on a round sheet of metal called a tābaq, layered with fruit, and drenched with sugar.
The 13th-century anonymous Kitab al tabikh fi-l-Maghrib wa-l-Andalus (Book of Dishes from Mahgreb and Al-Andalus) uses the word kunāfa to describe a crêpe made with thin batter on an Indian pan or "mirror" (the tābaq), and says it is equivalent to ruqāq. It also gives a recipe for Abbasid Qatāyif (the crêpes being called musahhada in Al-Andalus), which uses the same batter, but the kunāfa is made thinner, "like a fine tissue". It gives a number of dessert recipes for kunāfa, where the crêpes are served layered with fresh cheese, baked, and topped with honey and rose syrup; or cut up into shreds like rose leaves and cooked with honey, nuts, sugar, and rosewater.
Ibn al-Jazari gives an account of a 13th-century market inspector who rode through Damascus at night, ensuring the quality of kunāfa, qatā'if, and other foods associated with Ramadan, during the Mamluk period.
In the later Middle Ages, a new technique was created, with thin batter being dripped onto the metal sheet from a perforated container, creating hair-like strings. A mid-15th-century Ottoman Turkish translation of Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi's Kitab al-Tabikh added several new contemporary recipes, including one for this kadayif, though it does not specify where it originated. This became the basis for the modern kunafa/kanafeh. It is fried together with butter and fillings or toppings such as nuts, sweetened cheese, or clotted cream, and mixed with rosewater and sugar. The pastry spread from the Arab lands to neighboring countries including Iran and Greece, and to Turkey where the string pastry itself is known as tel kadayıf ("string crêpes"), also used in related pastries such as dolma kadayif.
- khishnah (Arabic: خشنة, rough): crust made from long thin noodle threads.
- na'ama (Arabic: ناعمة, fine): semolina dough.
- mhayara (Arabic: محيرة, mixed): a mixture of khishnah and na'ama.
- mbrwma (Arabic: مبرومة, twined): It is prepared with noodle.
The pastry is heated in butter, margarine, palm oil, or traditionally semneh and then spread with soft white cheese, such as Nabulsi cheese, and topped with more pastry. In khishnah kanafeh the cheese is rolled in the pastry. A thick syrup of sugar, water, and a few drops of rose water or orange blossom water is poured on the pastry during the final minutes of cooking. Often the top layer of pastry is tinted with red food coloring (a modern shortcut, instead of baking it for long periods of time). Crushed pistachios are sprinkled on top as a garnish.
Kanafeh Nabulsieh originated in the Palestinian city of Nablus, hence the name Nabulsieh. Nablus is still renowned for its kanafeh, which consists of mild white cheese and shredded wheat surface, which is covered by sugar syrup. In the Levant and Egypt, this variant of kanafeh is the most common.
Kadayıf and künefe
In the Hatay region of Turkey, which was formerly part of Syria and has a large Arab population, the pastry is called künefe and the wiry shreds are called tel kadayıf. A semi-soft cheese such as Urfa peyniri (cheese of Urfa) or Hatay peyniri (cheese of Hatay), made of raw milk, is used in the filling. In making the künefe, the kadayıf is not rolled around the cheese; instead, cheese is put in between two layers of wiry kadayıf. It is cooked in small copper plates, and then served very hot in syrup with clotted cream (kaymak) and topped with pistachios or walnuts. In the Turkish cuisine, there is also yassı kadayıf and ekmek kadayıfı, none of which is made of wiry shreds.
This type of Azerbaijani variant is prepared in Tabriz, Iran. "Riştə Xətayi" consists of meshed shreds, and is typically cooked in Ramadan in the world's biggest covered Bazaar of Tabriz. It is made of chopped walnuts, cinnamon, ginger, powder of rose, sugar, water, rose water and olive oil.
In this variant, called also καταΐφι (kataïfi) or κανταΐφι (kadaïfi) in Greek, the threads are used to make various forms of pastries, such as tubes or birds' nests, often with a filling of chopped nuts as in baklava.
The world's largest plate of the dessert was made in Antakya, Turkey, in 2017. The tray of künefe measured 78 meters long, and weighed 1550 kilograms. A previous record attempt was made by rival Nablus in 2009, with a 75-meter tray, weighing 1,350 kilograms. Neither attempt was officially listed as breaking the record; according to the website of the Guinness World Records, there is no current record holder for the title.
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