The proprietors of the new knafeh shops in Tel Aviv swear that their versions of the popular Middle Eastern dessert taste exactly like the ones you find in an Arab town. I myself have tasted knafeh – threads of noodle-like pastry (kadayif) soaked in an orangy syrup, with soft white cheese and chopped nuts – in the Gaza Strip, Cairo, Nazareth and a village in Jordan. They had all had a phosphorescent orange tint, were baked in and served from a large tray, their cheese was tangy and their sweetness almost painful in its intensity. So any connection between traditional Arab knafeh and the variety that’s served in the so-called State of Tel Aviv is fairly minimal.
Still, whether as a breakfast treat, an afternoon snack or late-night munchie, knafeh is a big hit these days in the seaside city. Its current wave of popularity dates to the end of 2018, so it seems, when British-born Dean Essa opened his Knafeh Bar in trendy Florentine, in the south. Today, a personal round serving of knafeh, costing 22 shekels ($6.40), is assembled the moment you place your order and placed on a revolving stove top. A worker there explains that otherwise the knafeh burns and it is impossible to bake it as is required over a low flame. “In Turkey, by comparison, they bake the knafeh on coals, so the flavors of the smoke are absorbed into it,” he says. His eyes sparkle as he recalls the Turkish knafeh prepared in the region bordering on Syria. But anyway, for locals, the offerings at Knafeh Bar – whose motto is “Live, Laugh, Love, Knafeh” – are truly among the best in Tel Aviv.
Yaffa Knafeh debuted in early 2019 in Jaffa’s flea market with a dish that went viral on social media: an individual round knafeh served with Turkish ice cream made from goat’s milk, for 20 shekels. At Yaffa, they say their inspiration is Turkish, as is one of the cheeses than used in the mixture – which creates a springy consistency and a salty-sweet flavor. The long lines at the entrance to the shop have prompted the owners to expand, and they will soon be opening another branch, also in Jaffa.
Just a few months ago, knafeh put down even more roots in Tel Aviv. Delightful Arab music and strings of lights will entice you into Knaffex, a knafeh café founded by Izz a-din Salah from Nazareth. An illuminated board boasts pictures of all the types of knafeh on offer, including vegan and chocolate-filled varieties – all user-friendly variations for knafeh novices. But most customers opt for the classic version of the dish, which is served here too with Turkish goat’s milk ice cream. At night, neighborhood residents gather out front and sip tea or Turkish coffee along with their knafeh. Even though Salah stresses that it’s much better eaten on the spot, many customers leave with their knafeh packed in plastic containers.
Salah, who hopes to turn his restaurant into a chain, asserts that “preparing knafeh is a profession, and it is impossible to copy professionalism.” As for any similarity to the knafeh served in Israel’s Arab locales, he insists there is no difference, although he admits that “we may have reduced some of the sugar, because Tel Avivians aren’t tough enough for such an amount, and they also watch their weight.”
Not too far away, in the city center, is the local branch of Hamisada Halevanonit, the legendary Lebanon Restaurant in the village of Abu Ghosh outside Jerusalem. The knafeh station is in the back, next to the take-out window, abutting the London Ministore. Within minutes of being ordered, a fragrant golden portion is served here, for 28 shekels.
Knafeh Yisraelit opened next door to Arusa Yisraelit and belongs to the same family from the Arab village of Meisar in northern Israel that’s given Tel Aviv a lesson in authentic charcoal-broiled arusa, aka arayes (grilled pita sandwiches stuffed with chopped meat). Several times a day, the mother of the family prepares a large tray of golden knafeh (15 shekels per serving), cut into diamond shapes and generously sweetened (though still a far cry from the typical sweetness of Arab knafeh).
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Then there’s the knafeh, prepared by a group of young Jews, that’s for sale by home delivery. Haknufiya, Knafeh ‘Ad Habayit offers a piping, family-sized version based on mozzarella cheese – a very liberal interpretation of the original, but one that makes splendid fodder for Instagram (about 100 shekels with delivery). The partners in Haknufiya recently decided that they will expand their business and open a permanent location in Tel Aviv.
Knafeh’s surging popularity was particularly noticeable during the Shavuot holiday last spring, when numerous bloggers and food writers shared their recipes for it instead of the standard holiday cheesecake. For her part, Michal Waxman, a Haaretz columnist, has touted knafeh as an unusual version of cheesecake that’s served warm and has a flavor and consistency that, actually, no other cheesecake can compete with.
While most of the knafeh in the Tel Aviv these days is following the traditional style, Hakubiya in the Hatikva market is breaking the mold. As part of its knafeh festival last month, it served one version stuffed with pullet, and another featuring slow-cooked asado with figs, apricots, honey, silan and walnuts.
Chef Moyin Halabi of Haifa’s Rola restaurant, who makes frequent culinary trips to Turkey, says the idea of individual knafeh is a Turkish one.
“I haven’t come across large trays of knafeh there that are divided into portions, because the whole idea of knafeh is that it is prepared right when a person orders it,” Halabi says.
Why are there such big differences in flavor?
Halabi: “The answer has to do with sugar and cheese. In Arab towns in Israel, knafeh is sold for take-out by weight, and sugar adds weight – and at a low cost. As for the cheese, places that sell knafeh in an organized way in Tel Aviv work with a pasteurized variety. The taste of the cheese is very salty because the salt functions as a preservative. To get rid of the saltiness, the cheese has to be soaked in fresh water and rinsed, and this is a long process that takes about 10 rinsings. The taste of the water is absorbed into the cheese and makes it milder. Jibneh cheese that is typically used to make knafeh doesn’t become elastic like in the images you see on Instagram where they use mozzarella, which is a culinary mistake.”
So our knafeh is more like the Turkish version?
“I haven’t tasted the knafeh in Tel Aviv but in Turkey there are a lot of people who came from the Aleppo area and they’ve continued the tradition of making knafeh in the Syrian style. So in Turkey you can also eat Syrian knafeh that is very good. But the sweets in Israel are of quite a high level, too. I took some friends from Turkey to Mamtakei Hayedidut in Nazareth and they left with six kilos of them.”
Traditional-style knafeh, as prepared by Halabi and other big-name chefs in Israel like Haim Cohen (Yaffo-Tel Aviv) and Tomer Agay (Santa Katerina), have definitely entered the pantheon of the best desserts in Israel. The delicacy that started out as a street food in Arab candy and pastry shops and climbed its way to the top chef restaurants has now, for the most part, returned to its roots as an affordable, everyday treat that can be picked up on the go.
Knafeh Bar – 3 Ma’on Street, Florentine, Tel Aviv. Monday-Thursday 12:00-24:00, Sunday 18:00-24:00. 054-2285841
Yaffa Knafeh – 24 Olei Tzion Street, Jaffa. Monday-Saturday 11:00-24:00. 03-9702051 (another branch slated to open soon)
Knaffex – 9 Ibn Gvirol Street, Tel Aviv. Daily 12:00-24:00. 03-7436948
Halevanonit – 4 Shaul Hamelech Street (London Ministore), Tel Aviv. Daily 10:00-23:00. 03-7288833
Arusa Yisraelit – 3 Ibn Gvirol Street, Tel Aviv. Daily 10:00-04:00. 1-700-707-058
Haknufiya, Knafeh ‘Ad Habayit – 055-9960669
Hakubiya – 22 Hodaya Street, Hatikva Market, Tel Aviv. Sunday-Thursday 12:00-23:00, Friday 12:00 until one hour before Shabbat. 03-9747333