Words | Necla Benzer Illustrations | Nour I. Flayhan
A food writer embarks on a pilgrimage through the Middle East in search of a pastry's origin, discovering that tracing the history of a dessert is trickier than you might think.
I’ll never forget Sunday mornings at the fish market in Hamburg Altona: the colorful hustle around each stall and the shouting of vendors trying to sell apples, cucumbers, cabbage and all sorts of goods before the loudspeakers announced closing time.
As a child these sensations fended off my sleepiness. My family strolled the market with bags and baskets full of vegetables, fruit, rustic breads and freshly caught fish. Afterward, my dad took us to his favorite Kurdish eatery, located adjacent to the Altona train station. And while he told us we would come here for the market — to stock up on fresh groceries — we all knew the real reason we took this early morning sojourn into Hamburg was to visit my father’s favorite Köz Urfa.
And who’d turn down a sumptuous Middle Eastern meal? Exactly.
A First Taste of Künefe
I cannot recall the first time I tasted Künefe. But I do remember the first time I was aware of what I was eating. After courses of red lentil soup and mezze followed by plates of kebab, piles of bulgur, thick yoghurt and spicy Havuç Ezmesi, I took a bite of the dish that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Whenever I travelled to the Middle East, Künefe always appeared — awakening memories of my upbringing in Germany as the child of Kurdish immigrants. To me, this dessert became more than just a treat; it became a part of my learned heritage, my cultural identity, my origin story.
But with different versions of the dessert in different regions, no one seems to agree on where it first originated. On my travels to these countries, I’ve often tried to piece together an accurate account of where it really comes from. And in doing so, I’ve learned even desserts can be political.
As a specialty of the Levante, Künefe is a relatively simple dish: soft cheese, homemade dough and the perfect ratio of simple syrup. In the final moments of cooking, many often pour on a few drops of rose or orange blossom water.
The dish embraces everything I love about Mediterranean cuisine — simplicity, sophistication, and selection of quality ingredients.
I am intimately acquainted with Turkish Künefe. This version is originally made with a regional semi-soft cheese put between two layers of dough shreds, called tel kadayıf, and then soaked in hot sugar syrup. Unlike the Arabic versions, Künefe is served in a small copper plate, which gives the dish a more refined character. Sometimes it comes with a scoop of dondurma (Turkish ice cream) or kaymak (similar to clotted cream) and topped with ground pistachios. Every time I am served the hot, sizzling plate — be it in Germany or in Turkey — it inspires feelings of longing, a naïve romanticization for the glamorous era of past centuries, my Arabian Nights.
Food Knows No Borders: When Künefe Became Knafeh
I came to know Lebanese Knafeh through my travels in the region. My experience with Lebanese Knafeh somehow mirrored the whole spirit of Beirut and its people: opulent, indulgent, a little too much of everything but still so enchanting and satisfying.
I was told the best time to eat Knafeh was early in the morning, when it comes fresh out of the oven. So after a nightly sightseeing trip from Beirut to Jounieh to Byblos and up the hill to the Lady of Lebanon with its breath-taking view over the city, I was ready for my Beiruti early morning indulgence at Doueihy in the Achrafieh neighborhood. It was unlike anything I had expected.
Sitting in front of a huge plate of Lebanese sweet treats, I must have been so stuck on my idea of the Turkish version in a hot sizzling plate that I didn’t even recognize the Knafeh. Where was my round single portion? “No habibi, that is not the right way to eat Knafeh,” I was told by my Lebanese foodie friend. “We don’t do it like that here. This is the Lebanese way. This is the only way to eat it.”
This was the moment I realized there was much more to this dessert than my general love for sweet and heavy treats. Up to this point, Künefe was clearly Turkish to me, something I’d known all my childhood and never questioned to be anything else than what I was told. You see, I used to compare and differentiate countries and regions only based on languages, political systems and nationalities. But food culture has became a new parameter for me and has taught me more about some regions than their GDPs, religious affiliation and electoral systems.
All of a sudden, Künefe became a symbol of the commonalities and differences of the Levante. It made me understand how interlinked the region is in terms of shared ethnicities, languages, religions and histories. But it also showed me how they differ, which is so apparent in the execution of something as simple as this dessert. This, in my mind, is the very idea of diversity.
At the same time, I realized how much my food experiences were always embedded in a very personal story, be it the ceremonies with my family, good friends and locals introducing me to their favorite native dishes, places or producers. These people are all part of the whole experience. As important as the quality and execution of the final product is, the personal element tops it off and makes it last beyond the moment.
A Pilgrimage for Knefeh
Still, I knew that the dessert must have some birthplace — for no matter how far we travel from our motherland, we always have some intrinsic connection to it. I decided to plan a trip to Israel and Palestine. I intended to travel into the West Bank to the Palestinian city of Nablus, widely considered the birthplace of Knafeh.
However, when I told my local friend in Tel Aviv about my plans, he sneered at me and said with a chuckle, “Forget everything you know about Knafeh and let me show you how it’s done right. You cannot leave the country without having tried the best Knafeh you will ever have in your life. But for this, we have to go to Jerusalem.”
Now this was my kind of local.
But his endeavor to convince me of this culinary fact made me think of the “hummus wars,” as I like to call it: the ongoing and relatively pointless quarrels about the best hummus in the region. This is not just a discussion had between countries, but also rivalries within regions. Can Jaffa’s famous “Abu Hassan” really compete with Akko’s “Hummus Said”? (Yes, I admit: I still think Akko knows how to work chickpeas best.) It left me a little traumatized during my travels when talking about the origin of these foods. And I was not willing to let my Knafeh experience be overshadowed by the negative vibe surrounding discussions about the national or cultural affiliation of a bowl of chickpea goodness or melted-cheese desserts.
I decided to set aside conflicting regional history and let him introduce me to his idea of the best Knafeh experience. We travelled from the relatively flat coast near Tel Aviv, ascending into the hills of Jerusalem. Entering Jaffar Sweets Jerusalem, located in the city’s historic Old Town, I was a little put off first by the rather depressing interior with its imposing, black furniture and dim lighting.
This time, unlike my experiences in Lebanon, I thought I was prepared. I didn’t expect a copper plate Künefe nor the opulence of the Lebanese Knefeh. But here I was again, presented with nothing that met my expectations. The Knafeh was neon orange! Jerusalem Knafeh is made with soft goat cheese wrapped in fine, orange phyllo dough. Unlike the Lebanese and the Turkish version, it has something quite light to it — at least as light as cheese drowned in fat and sugar can be.
At first I was skeptical, thinking of my friend’s high opinion of this place and the possibility that I could disappoint him. But how little did I know that the first bite would tickle my taste buds and remind me of everything I love about traveling, especially food?
While I took the first bite of the best Knafeh I have ever tasted, my friend took me back in time to those days when his Jewish father used to take him for a little treat at Arab-owned Jaffa Knafeh after they had spent an hour or so strolling the old shouk. It made me think of my Kurdish father and the countless occasions he took us to both Kurdish and Turkish restaurants. Never did he mention the origin of Künefe. It didn’t matter whether it was Turkish, Kurdish or Arabic, he just wanted me to enjoy the treat.
I started to recognize the similarities in our parents’ approach to tasting, enjoying and appreciating food: mind off, senses on and being fully immersed in the experience.
Lesson learned: Do not discuss the origin and ownership of foods and dishes in the Middle East. And really, does it matter where a dessert originates?
Histories, stories, narratives and memories change. But isn’t it simply wonderful that so many cultures, cities and people share a love for a simple dish that transcends, if only for a moment, worldly conflict? Origin stories for such a pastry may be a part of our collective heritage. That's the way it is. Yet when we taste such a treat, it transports us a little closer to heaven.
So, if you never had the privilege to taste Knefeh, I can only quote a good friend: “You haven’t lived!”
Necla Benzer is a political consultant and food writer in Berlin, Germany.