Habibah and Nafeeseh Knafeh
By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer
Knafeh is one of the most popular desserts in the Levant. What makes the knafeh so special? The dessert has cheese in it, unlike many other Arab desserts. It is made with wheat, cheese, rose water, ghee, sugar and sometimes orange blossom. Some places will put orange food coloring on the crust to make it more orange, others put pistachios on top. It can have either a harder, rough crust or a softer crust, depending on your preference. The harder crust looks more like a bird’s nest made of the kadaif noodles strung out to look like wires. For the soft crust, the crust is made of semolina dough. The warm cheese pastry with syrup has become a staple dessert in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan.
People most commonly eat knafeh for celebrations, whether it is a job promotion, birthday, graduation, and more. This isn’t because it is expensive, but because it is such a filling dessert that is best to not be eaten too often. However, people will still line up at the shops to order bulk or individual knafeh, so it is unlikely that a place will not have a line. Knafeh is also paired with mansaf, the national dish of Jordan.
Knafeh is a staple dessert with many variations. Nablus is widely considered the best place for knafeh, although many places throughout the Levant have also put a stake in the claim to the “best”. Each place has its own different version of how to make knafeh. In Amman, Jordan, there are two main companies considered the “best”: Habibah and Nafeeseh. There is a friendly competition between the people for which one is best. Everyone has their own “team” and will convince others that their knafeh is better.
Habibah is one of the older companies in Amman that will make knafeh. Established in 1951, the company is well-known for their delicious knafeh, among the many other desserts they offer. Mahmoud Habibah founded the company in Amman after making it in Nablus. Since its founding, Habibah has spread to multiple locations in Amman, although the original location next to the Arab Bank is the most popular. Habibah Sweets lead the pastry shops in declining to put any food coloring on their pastries, especially knafeh. Eventually, the Jordanian Ministry of Health followed suit in banning the use of food coloring on pastries. Habibah sells the original thick-crusted knafeh, the newer thin crust, and the ingredients for people to make it at home. Originally, the thick crusts were more popular, but now the thin crusts are requested more.
The small, unassuming shop in the middle of downtown Amman always has a long line of customers out the door waiting for their knafeh. Customers will crowd the area to wait while Habibah employees make their dessert fresh and sit in the alley to eat it. Habibah Sweets is now owned by Mahmoud’s son Hani.
Although Nafeeseh isn’t as well-established as Habibah, but has grown quite rapidly. Nafeeseh is a Syrian sweet shop, offering many other Syrian and Levantine sweets. The shop is owned by Jordanians, but makes an effort to hire Syrian refugees and helps them get a permit to work. Since the shop first opened, it has expanded to six branches in Amman.
Nafeeseh Sweets makes knafeh with a rough crust and a soft crust, and has many other sweets to sell. Their specialty is Syrian desserts, so their version of knafeh is also Syrian. They are also known for being generous with their pistachio and nut toppings and servings sizes. The sweets are also generally cheap compared to the serving sizes- one piece of knafeh is 1 JD, which is a little less than $1.50. There is usually a long wait, but the wait is worth it-they will make your order right in front of you. Right outside of their store, there is also a little shack offering free coffee for those who want something to drink with the knafeh.
Either way, you can’t go wrong with knafeh. Its distinctive taste with the melting cheese and the topping make it a memorable dessert and a must-have for those visiting.
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