Niche Arab Dessert Hits Mainstream American Supermarkets
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
Ask any Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian or any Arab for that matter what their favorite dessert is, and they will most likely say without hesitation “Kanafeh!” Most people in the western world might scratch their heads and say..”huh, what is it?” Kanafeh is a legendary dessert with a cult-like following–any middle eastern person will line up eagerly if they spot that large orange disk of buttery phyllo dough goodness atop the sweet and stretchy white cheese underneath:
The topping can consist of either crispy shredded phyllo, otherwise known as “Kataifi” or a finer semolina dough, which has a softer and more buttery texture. The kanafeh is then doused with simple syrup and dusted with chopped pistachios. Many Arabs think kanafeh is their little exclusive secret, with at least one person in the family that has mastered the art of perfecting this over 500-year-old dessert. The word Kanafeh comes from the Arabic word “Kanaf” which means to “shelter.” Funny translation, as there is no place I would rather be than sheltered under a massive tent of kanafe if the world comes to an end.
While many argue about the origins of kanafeh, Nablus Palestine reigns as the creator of the most popular variation, with the trademark orange dough crowning the renowned Nabulsi cheese. Nabulsi cheese is a sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese gathered from the hills of Nablus, where these grass-fed animals roam. The cheese is mildly sweet and has a texture reminiscent of creamy Italian burrata. Another variation of kanafeh uses “qushta,” or clotted cream, which has an almost custard-like texture. Nablus bakers were also the first to use the brilliant and distinctive orange dye in the dough. A perfect kanafeh is usually gooey on the inside and crunchy on the outside. To stake their claim as the kings of kanafeh, 170 Nabulsi bakers broke the record for the largest kanafeh in the world, weighing in at almost 3000 pounds, measuring 246 feet long!
Now, you can imagine my surprise when I saw frozen Kanafeh on the shelves of Trader Joe’s. I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but when I reached out and touched the package I realized that yes, this really does exist! Trader Joe’s doesn’t even seem to know what to do with this culinary oddity, placing the kanafeh on the shelf of frozen appetizers, rather than with the desserts. The spelling is uncommon as well: “kunefe.” Immediately I looked at the ingredients and noticed they used mozzarella and mizithra cheese, which is a sheep’s milk cheese native to Greece. Perhaps the mizithra is a replacement for Nabulsi cheese? There was also no mention of “Palestinian” on the box. This has caused an uproar from Palestinians nationwide, who are decrying this as cultural appropriation.
Now as for the flavor, I give this dessert interpretation a 3 out of 5 stars. Props to Trader Joe’s for using the original Kataifi dough, instead of a cheap substitute like bread crumbs. Another point for the cheese, as the cheese did not turn as rubbery as I thought it would upon baking. However, the cheese was on the salty side. This can be remedied by soaking the cheese overnight in water or using farmer cheese, like the Mexican Queso Fresco, instead of the mozzarella. If TJ’s used the Nabulsi sheep’s milk instead of the mizithra it would catapult this dessert to a whole other level of texture and flavor. The sugar syrup was on point, not too thick and not too watery. The little packet of pistachios was a nice addition but was very sparse. If you compare this frozen version to the original Palestinian bakery treat, you would notice right away that the Palestinian version would be more rich, creamy, gooey, and sweet. The end result from TJ’s looks like this photo below:
Would I buy this again? I probably would if I had an intense kanafeh craving, and that is why the folks behind Trader Joe’s are genius. Love them or hate them, they do the deep cultural dive to find niche products that are popular from every corner of the world.
To see my review of their kanafeh, click on the video below:
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East, and soon to be cookbook author. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/