Posted by Beshouy Botros on August 14, 2015 in Blog

Arab desserts are not only rich and layered – their histories provide readers a treat that is almost as sweet and fascinating as the dishes themselves. Kunafa is another classic Arab dessert popular in the Levant and Egypt – unsurprisingly, its history and assembly are both rich and layered.

Kunafa’s origins can be traced to two different caliphates, in the Umayyad Levant under Muawiyah I and in Fatimid Egypt under Khalifa Abdel-Malek Bin Marawan. In both stories, doctors prescribe kunafa to satisfy the voracious appetites of their caliphs during Ramadan. Its long lasting warming effects were said to satiate hungry princes at suhoor and carry them through their day of fasting. Another popular theory corroborating kunafa’s Fatimid origins is that the Fatimid’s, who were Shias, introduced kunafa along with other festive Ramadan traditions and treats to win over the primarily Sunni Egyptian population. Since Medieval Islamic times, kunafa has remained a festive food commemorating all sorts of religious and family celebrations in Arab households.

Kunafa consists of a layer of shredded wheat, shredded fillo, or vermicelli noodles. This bottom layer is topped with either clotted cream, which is preferred in Egypt, or cheese, which is typically used in the Levant. Nuts or fruit are added, and a second layer of the dough or noodles is added. The kunafa is baked until golden brown, though many still fry the dough in ghee before constructing their masterpiece. Kunafa can also be rolled. After the kunafa has cooked, syrup (flavored with rose, orange blossom or date) or honey are added and it is often topped with pine nuts or pistachios. In Palestine, semolina with food coloring is used to create a trademark kunafa with its vibrant orange color. While the consensus is that the center must be creamy, its outer layer’s texture is largely dependent on the type of dough used and the means by which that dough is cooked. Generally, tants and tetas agree on a smooth filling, a crunchy outer layer, but filling, syrup choice, and texture still significantly vary.

Arafat Sweets in Nablus, Palestine is, for all intents and purposes, a kunafa holy site. This confectionary has existed for nearly a century and maintains a venerable tradition of serving traditional kunafas and other sweets. Elsewhere, in Cairo, new bakeries are experimenting with this age-old delicacy creating the now ubiquitous mango custard (as opposed to cream or cheese) kunafa, and even nutella and red velvet kunafas. Purists rightly question the integrity of these creations, but in an increasingly cosmopolitan foodscape, and with so much existing variation, room must be made for both culinary conservatives and radicals. For those on the righteous path to original kunafa, there are translated recipes from medieval cookbooks, and for chefs seeking to innovate, inspiration is abound.

Enjoy kunafa!

Beshouy Botros is an intern with the Arab American Institute