Feb 22, 2012

The Kanafe Experience

Written by Jessica Hochstadt 

Chocolate heals a broken heart, although Ben & Jerry’s can be equally successful. Twizzlers, to me, are movie candies- the sweetness of the strawberry licorice paired with salty popcorn is enough to make any movie worth seeing. Cakes are for celebrations. But kanafeh? Kanafeh is simply an experience.
I’ve eaten kanafeh twice in my life; both times were in Israel. The first time, I was 21 years old and urged by an old friend to head to Jerusalem for the best middle-eastern dessert that the Arab people had to offer. This time, I sought it out myself, in the heart of Tel Aviv. If my memory served me correctly, this dish was “achla” (“wonderful”, in Arabic/Hebrew slang), and worth the trip to the shuk (outdoor market where you can find anything from vegetables and breads to costumes and curry flavored sesame seeds).
The shuk is often crowded with shouts from vendors to come purchase from the best, smells of raw fish and sewage, pushy Israelis trying to make their way past tourists like me, and of course, food booths. This particular shuk, “Shuk HaCarmel” is located on a narrow side street on the busiest intersection in Tel Aviv.
Most of the booths have beautiful displays of fresh and local vegetables for the best prices this side of the Galilee. The kanafeh booth, however, is more of an isolated table in the middle of the shuk. Once I approached, I figured out why this confection vendor stands alone among the hustle and bustle of the marketplace.
The old man who makes this dessert stands confidently by his sweets. His hands are visibly worn from years of preparing this unique dish. He’s perfected his recipe over the years to the point where he is certain that his culinary creation will sell, without the need for customer service. Simply stated, the man is rude! He doesn’t care to elaborate on his feelings of the dish, his recipe, or the history of kanafeh. Therefore, I had to do some online research for a background on kanafeh, but I assure you the experience is all my own.

Kanafeh is a sweet pastry made from layers of thread-thin, crispy dough with nabulsi cheese (a sweet cottage-cheese-like filling), drizzled in sugar- and rose-water. Often times, it is topped with crushed pistachio to add to the crunch, and coated with orange food-coloring. This dessert dates back to the middle ages of Arab culture and is often cooked in large pans, double the size of a pizza-pie dish.
In my most recent kanafeh experience, I approached the vendor to ask if he could tell me a little bit about the dessert. His response was a dismissive “I don’t have time for this”, in Arabic-accented Hebrew, of course. (To elaborate, he had no other customers at the moment but me.) Alas, I was persistent. So I asked him for a slice of his dessert.
He proceeded to slab a mouse-pad-sized serving of moist kanafeh on a square Styrofoam plate, and charged me 10 shekels for my purchase. (This translates into approximately $2.50.) It wasn’t the price of the dish that bothered me, but the amount he gave me. It would have been impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but certainly unhealthy) for me to eat the entire serving.

I asked him to cut the serving down to half of what he had given me. So he removed half of the kanafeh and returned the plate to me. Again, I asked him how much he would like. Again, he responed, “10 shekels.” I looked at him, confused. I might not speak his language, but I know that if you remove half of my purchase, I should only pay half of the original price. Determined to get 10 shekels from me, he added a small piece of baklava to my plate. Annoyed, I paid the man his 10 shekels, and walked away with what I’ll call a “piggy-portion” of dessert, all for me.
This particular kanafeh was not the warm, moist dish I remembered from Jerusalem. However, there was no mistaking its distinct rose-water flavor and phyllo-dough crunch. Kanafeh is a staple dish at Arabic celebrations and can be found in many Middle-Eastern specialty stores in the US. Fortunately for me, I have the authentic version of this dish at my disposal, just down the street. Unfortunately, acquiring it necessitates interacting with, quite possibly, the least friendly Arab-Israeli I have yet to meet in this country. But the dessert is so unique and decadent that it is often worth the aggravation… and the ten shekels. 

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