An Idiot’s Guide to the Origin of Kunafa

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Who could forget the good old days when every grandma in Egypt would serve up her famous kunafa every Ramadan? While every child loved to assume that kunafa was exclusively their grandma’s creation, it was actually enjoyed by people at least half a millennium ago.

The name ‘kunafa’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘kanaf,’ which means ‘to shelter.’ While its back-story is as rich as its flavor, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when it came to be known as the delicious treat we all enjoy today.

But before we dive into a quick history lesson, it’s important to first understand how kunafa is made. It’s usually prepared using shredded noodles, shredded phyllo dough, or semolina dough, depending on whether it’s crispy or soft. The filling inside varies as well; some prefer it plain, while others opt for clotted cream (qeshta), raisins, or pistachios. One variety of kunafa uses nabulsi cheese to create the famous kunafa nabulsi, which originated in Nablus, Palestine.

The filling either goes at the bottom layer or in the middle, and the final creation is baked until it turns a beautiful golden brown. Afterwards, the dish is topped with sweet syrup that’s made from sugar and water. In case of the kunafa nabulsi, a food coloring is used to give the dessert its trademark orange color. While the method of cooking and the appearance may differ from one country to another, one factor usually stays consistent: the middle is more on the creamy side, while the top retains a crunchy texture.

So, who is the person responsible for this sinfully divine treat? Some reports say that kunafa was created in Fatimid Egypt in the 15th Century, when doctors prescribed it for caliphs to enjoy during suhoor. The reasoning at the time was that the filling delicacy was meant to curb hunger during the long days of fasting. There is another story that also cites doctors prescribing it to fulfill the appetites of caliphs and kings, but this one dictates that this happened during the Umayyad Empire in Damascus in the 10th Century.

Other reports claim that the origin comes from Nablus, Palestine. The city actually holds the Guinness World Record for the largest kunafa ever made; 170 bakers gathered in 2009 to create one that was a whopping 75 meters long and two meters wide. The giant pastry used 300 kilograms of sugar, 35 kilograms of pistachios and 600 kilograms of cheese. Let’s stop and think about that for a second: 600 kilograms of heavenly nabulsi cheese.

Today, kunafa is a Ramadan staple in various parts (if not all) of the Arab world, as well as other countries. In recent times, people began to experiment with the dish in an attempt to add a modern twist. From mango, nutella, custard, crème brulee and even red velvet, the dish has proven to only get more and more delicious in all its forms.

Despite the conflicted reports on how and when it originated, one thing remains certain; it’s difficult not to find kunafa in one form or the other at an Arab household during Ramadan. So when we’re gathering with family this month and biting into a delicious piece of kunafa, let’s remember that this isn’t just a slice of dessert; it’s a slice of history.

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