It’s 9:30 P.M. and 100 people are gathered around a well-lit storefront on Olei Tzion Street in Jaffa. It’s Yaffa Knafeh, and it’s the place to be.
I’ve been informed that if I want to eat, I have to speak with Abed, who stands at the door holding a tablet computer. He says I’m No. 24. I ask him if it’s always like this. He looks up, glances around and says, “it’s a little slow today. Usually the line is all the way down the street.”
Israel’s knafeh craze has really taken off this year. Basically it’s a skillet cake made with salty cheese, dough and sweet syrup, and lately it has become ridiculously popular. People go out to eat knafeh, places with all-knafeh menus are opening all the time, and the idea of a “knafeh bar” increasingly sounds normal rather than bizarre.
In around half an hour, my phone buzzes with a text message: “We are ready to serve you. Report to the hostess.” I wait for another 10 minutes until the hostess is free, pay 25 shekels ($7.18), and 20 minutes later there’s another message: “Order No. 498 is ready. Please report to the counter.”
I report, wait a few minutes and am given two disposable aluminum take-out pans. In one is a warm, thin piece of knafeh around 15 centimeters (6 inches) in diameter, in the second is a cube of ice cream. It tastes fine, but too sweet. I love knafeh, but this one isn't worth standing in line for an hour on a busy commercial street near the Flea Market. It’s doubtful any food is worth waiting in line an hour for.
The nighttime jaunt to Jaffa taught me two things. One, that technology has captured yet another area of life, and two, that knafeh is cool. Once it was something we ate in the Old City of Jerusalem, as low-tech as it gets, as in Ehud Banai’s song “Haknafeh Metuka”: “The knafeh is sweet / There’s a mild scent of incense in the air / The knafeh is sweet / I remember the soft light.” In Jaffa, it was a high-tech experience.
The new history
Since that pedestrian slice on a bench on Olei Tzion Street I’ve eaten knafeh in a number of places around the country. Some were several times better and some were worse, but none involved waiting on line. Just the opposite. In most places I was welcomed with smiles, offered cold water or lemonade, and invited to sit, relax and breathe.
I once read that chef Haim Cohen is “the prophet of local knafeh.” He was very amused when I told him about this. “I didn’t invent knafeh any more than Eyal Shani invented pita. It was always here — in Jaffa, in Jerusalem, in Nazareth. It’s true that now it’s in good restaurants, Israeli restaurants, including my Yaffo Tel Aviv,” he said.
“It’s an interesting process, which I saw on the latest season of ‘MasterChef Israel’: There used to be an open battle between Israel and Tel Aviv. Israel was the home, mom’s cooking. Tel Aviv was imported culture. In that season something different happened, they came together. The Tel Avivians closed the distance and made alterations to fit the place. That means that knafeh’s time has come, along with that of other dishes from the local cuisine,” he added.
“The desire that I and others have to bring the local culture into a fine-dining restaurant was greeted with raised eyebrows. In many ways, we’ve lain down on the fence,” Cohen continued, using a Hebrew idiom connoting self-sacrifice.
“We were told at the time, who’ll pay you for couscous? You eat that at home. Now it’s the time, because there’s a young generation that’s beginning a new history. They’re breaking the old rules. It’s a point in history when everything is possible in the kitchen. You can offer the most down-home dish at the fanciest place, and I think that’s wonderful.”
With Cohen’s help, I tried to understand how to identify good knafeh. “The degree of sweetness is important. It must be salty and sweet. If it’s too sweet, you’re in trouble,” the chef explained. “The test is on the third bite. If you’re already saying ‘leave me alone’ by then, the dish is too sweet. But just between us, it’s a rich pastry with cheese and syrup, kids love it, how could it not be tasty?”
Armed with this excellent advice, I took myself to Ja'far Sweets in Jerusalem’s Old City, not far from Damascus Gate, in the heart of the souk. It’s not a restaurant, heaven forbid, but a pastry shop that’s been in business for 70 years, where a large, round tray of knafeh is finished within a few minutes. There are no individual portions; pieces are cut from the orangey brown round and put on a plate.
The walk through the souk, looking at the stores and sitting among the many customers, mainly Arabs, on simple Formica chairs, delighted me so much that I drank an entire pitcher of lukewarm water that was on the table even before the knafeh arrived. Next to me sat three women wearing burqas that covered everything but their eyes. To eat they had to lift their veils.
A moment later, facing an excellent dessert, I understood what Cohen meant. The knafeh at Ja'far (14 shekels) is made of semolina dough, not kataif (shredded phyllo dough). It's wonderful, and Cohen says the semolina absorbs sugar better than kataif. Thus the result is less sweet, and the saltiness of the cheese — a white brined goat or sheep’s milk cheese — is more pronounced. Somebody (it seems everyone here is a knafeh expert) told me later that knafeh made with semolina isn’t knafeh at all and that I was taken in, as usual.
The food of Arabs
The best knafeh of all was served to me in Nazareth, at Mahroum Sweets. It was sweet, flaky, salty-sweet, and the cold lemonade it was served with made the pleasure complete. At first I ate a portion from the large pan that had just been pulled from the coals. I loved it and asked about the owner.
Three siblings approached me. Bakr Mahroum, 39, is the youngest; he’s in charge of making the knafeh. He shot me a worried, suspicious look. Standing next to him was his elder brother Hamdi, who manages the business, and their sister Maysa, who’s in charge of sales and service. I praised the knafeh and asked for their secret.
“Knafeh is the best food in the world and we are No. 1 in Israel,” Bakr said, adding: “It’s a long, exacting process. There’s a special process we use for the cheese, in part to reduce the saltiness. We make a blend of a few cheeses, the butter is a special kind. Cooking on coals takes a great deal of skill. You must control the flame, and it’s not easy. It’s a whole profession.”
He explained later that he preserves the tradition of his father, Ahmad Mahroum, who founded the business, and he also tries to improve and innovate.
I asked him what he thought about the knafeh made in Jewish-owned restaurants. “What the Jews do is commerce, not knafeh,” he said.
Bakr Mahroum says the clientele for knafeh has expanded. Once only older people ate it. Now women and young people also come to the shop. It’s generally eaten in the evening, he says, and most of his customers are Arabs. The family operates branches in Sakhnin, Arabeh, Shfaram and Umm al-Fahm. When I ask why there aren’t any in Jewish areas, Bakr looks at his brother and sister and shrugs his shoulders. That’s life. It’s the food of Arabs.
The most interesting things I’ve read about knafeh have been written by Haaretz’s Ronit Vered. “Knafeh is kind of the next hummus,” she said, with the first sentence of our conversation fulfilling my dream, everything I hoped to hear from an expert in an interview.
“These foods become symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are political borders, but before 1948 the Middle East was a single cultural expanse, with the same foods and with great Arab, and above all Turkish influences. In the ancient Arab tradition, combinations of salty-sour and sweet-and-sour were very common. It’s not the range of flavors we’re familiar with today, and knafeh is a special holdover from that era. Food migrated, and very little of that has remained in modern culture.”
I asked her if knafeh was Israeli. “The affront taken by Palestinians over what was stolen from them is understandable,” she said. “Our appropriation of their foods is only a symbol for what was really taken from them. Israelis are excellent marketers and mediators, and everything becomes part of Israeli cuisine.”
So why is it so hard, even today, to find knafeh in Israeli restaurants?
“Knafeh is basically a skillet cake that isn’t simple at all, that requires genuine expertise. No one makes kataif or knafeh at home,” she said. Kataif can refer to shredded phyllo dough or desserts made with it.
“It’s a complicated dessert that takes a lot of time and is inconvenient for restaurateurs, and as a result it isn’t on the menu. It’s not a dessert you can simply put on a plate and send out to the table. It must be made to order. That’s why it’s not very common.”
To generalize, one can speak about three types of knafeh: regular, with whole kataif noodles and without food coloring; Nabulsi, with ground kataif noodles; and mabruma, rolled knafeh. The Israeli chef Leon Alkalai, with infinite patience, explained it thus: Knafeh must be hot-cold, salty-sweet, crisp-soft. It must not be orange — that’s food coloring. The orangey tone must come only from the butter on the kataif.