Why you should care
This dessert shows why we can’t have nice things — or peace — in the Middle East.
In Nablus, a Palestinian city in the modern-day West Bank, each family has their own favorite way of preparing the dessert their home is famous for: knafeh. Both sweet and savory, the dish is a vermicelli-like dough soaked in sweet, sugary syrup, layered with mozzarella-like cheese and topped with nuts. The recipes are subject to fierce debate, and are now becoming ever more varied, with low-sugar, gluten-free and even pistachio-ice-cream-topped versions.
The dessert has a long history, dating back centuries — perhaps as far back as the 10th century — but there is no dispute over where it was first created: in Nablus. Since then, it’s become a beloved treat across the Middle East — so much so that multiple nations try to claim it as their own, a culinary kerfuffle almost as heated as the centuries-long conflicts that have ravaged the region.
Knafeh may be the most political of foods: After all, countries can’t even agree on how to spell its name, much less the best way to serve it. Both Nablus (kanafeh Nabulsieh) and the Levantine Arab populations of Hatay, Turkey (künefe), have the best claims to knafeh, most experts readily concede. In Beirut, it is spelled knefeh and dubbed the national cheesecake of Lebanon: Made with a cheese akin to mozzarella and a semolina butter crust, it differs from its cousins by being served with bread.
Knafeh is perhaps the most iconic Palestinian dessert.
Ali Abunimah, author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine
The Greeks have their own version — also künefe, which uses a semisoft cheese cooked in copper plates — likely inspired by their time under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Tabriz, Iran, is known for another iteration, the popular Ramadan dish rishta Hatayi — translated most literally as “rip-off Hatay.”
Still, nowhere is the food fight over knafeh more pronounced than in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Nablus is just 30 miles from Jerusalem, and its version, likely the most historically popular of the regional varieties in the Levant, is often dyed orange and includes crushed pistachios, plus a white-brine cheese called jibneh Nabulsi. While this version’s popularity is undisputed, long-simmering tensions erupted when BuzzFeed published an advertorial titled “17 Incredible Desserts From Around the World” — and listed knafeh under the Israel section (the piece was taken down in 2014, but a copy can be seen here).
Which could be viewed as a culinary metaphor for the Israeli occupation. Knafeh is perhaps the most iconic Palestinian dessert, says Ali Abunimah, author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, who has accused Israel of a cultural theft that already includes falafel, hummus, olive oil, maftoul (Israeli couscous) and other dishes. “Knafeh is also presented in Israeli restaurants as an Israeli sweet, fully denying its origin and present,” adds Nasser Abdulhadi, a Palestinian restaurateur from Nablus.
The fear of denial has merit. In a piece published in nonprofit magazine Israel21c in December, Jessica Halfin — an American-born, Israeli-trained cook and food writer — writes that knafeh has become “part of a modern Israeli cuisine that embraces ethnic dishes” and is “more accessible and open to interpretation from home cooks, restaurant chefs and hipsters alike.”
Such disputes lay bare the truth that while food often unites, it can also divide. Both Peru and Ecuador claim ceviche as their national dish. Uruguay and Argentina often spar over whose beef is truly superior.
And when it comes to the great Israel-Palestine divide, even the ownership of a dessert isn’t free from tension. But both sides are likely to agree that knafeh, while still very political, is quite delicious.
You can find knafeh at various Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and Iranian — as well as Israeli and Palestinian — restaurants across the U.S. Or you can try making it yourself.