Sabina Lohr dishes on her favorite Middle Eastern dessert.
We all have foods that we crave; tastes that we long for well after we’re done traveling. My craving is knafeh, a sweet, cheese-filled pasty that I first discovered years ago, served fresh and toasty on a round metal platter in a small Druze village restaurant in the Golan Heights.
Since then, I have traveled in search of an encore, habitually plowing through Middle Eastern eateries and food stands for a taste of the soft, warm, cheesy treat as delicious as my first. Alas, I have failed many times over.
Then I heard that the West Bank city of Nablus had been awarded the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest knafeh (Oh, to have been there that day!). Upon further research, I learned also that Nablus is regarded the epicenter of knafeh culture, purportedly making the world’s best. So I set about to realize my goal of finding the ultimate dessert.
I traveled about 40 miles north from Jerusalem through the rocky hills of the northern West Bank to arrive at this ancient city, known in the Bible as Shechem. Nablus counts its metropolitan population at over 300,000, including residents of neighboring villages and refugee camps.
I weaved through the streets jammed with private cars, taxis, and people and made my way to the quieter yet just-as-crowded labyrinth of its oldest section.
Here, in the Old City’s souk, after passing through street after shop-filled street, I came across an area peppered with knafeh bakeries. This is where residents of Nablus gathered in the summer of 2009 in the hopes of setting their Guinness World Record. Success came in the form of a knafeh weighing almost one and a half tons and measuring 246 feet long by 6.5 feet wide.
An extremely popular Arab treat, knafeh is usually made in bulk in this city. Bakers toss platter after platter of them into ovens: The yellow flaky dough is mixed with syrup, soft cheese, and orange blossom water, with thin strands of white dough woven across the top that turns dark gold as they heat. Then they’re sliced up while still hot and sold for just five shekels to people eager for their daily fix.
I may have missed the world’s largest knafeh, but standing on the street holding a silver-plated spoon and a gooey sweet, I discovered that Nablus deserved its reputation as the best knafeh-serving city around. Fufilling a craving should always be this sweet.
Photos: Sabina Lohr