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One of the most decadent sweet I have ever had in my life was this summer in Nablus, Palestine. Knafa. It a rich, gooey, crunchy pastry type cake. Fresh bout of the oven it comes to you, your eyes are glowing while you take your first glance at the knafa. The simple syrup drips down the side of the desert, while the toasted Pistachios rest on top of the bright orange filo dough noodles. Not to mention all of this deliciousness is laying on top of a bed of gooey, traditional Arabic cheese. Then you smell a floral aroma, what is it? Rose water. Such a simply amazing combination.
The first bite is one you will remember your entire life. First you taste the sweetness of the simple syrup, then the saltiness of the Arabic cheese hits you. The cheese is so stretchy and gooey, you do not know what to do with it. Next, the crunchy filo dough noodles and toasted pistachios excite your taste buds. Lastly, your palette is cleansed with the lightness of rose water. Knafa is simply the best Palestinian sweet there is, and you must get it from Al Bake in Nablus. The evening prayers have reached their conclusion, and the night breeze runs through the town. The house is full of smiling faces conversing, family and friends sharing stories of their days spent fasting. The hot tea, freshly brewed, is poured and served to everyone, with a slice of knafeh. Though still stuffed from the grape leaves, zucchini, maklouba, and cheese and meat pies generously prepared for that day’s iftar, there is always room for knafeh.
Those with a sweet tooth will drown their slice in a special syrup, qatr, while others prefer their slice only slightly sweetened by the qatr in order to better enjoy the creamy cheese filling. There is no “right” way to enjoy knafeh, as long as it is in a spirited environment, surrounded by loved ones. Seconds are served, accompanied by little cups of freshly brewed Arabic coffee. As the evening wraps up, many prepare themselves for the night-time and taraweeh prayers, and others head home to rest before another long day of fasting. If you’re lucky, there will be a few slices of knafeh leftover for tomorrow.
It can be enjoyed in the streets on the go, or in a restaurant with employers; a high school or college graduation, or a celebration for a new house; a wedding or a baby shower. Indeed, diversity seems to be the one of the strongest characteristic of the legendary cheese-pie dessert. Knafeh, whose name is derived from the Arabic verb kanaf (to shelter), dates back at least half a millenium, with conflicting reports placing its origin in the West Bank city of Nablus in the 10th century or 15th century. According to some reports, knafeh was first created for Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan, the 10th Century first Caliph of the Umayyad Empire, centered in Damascus, in order to eat during suhoor as a surefire way to stave off hunger during the day-long fast. Other reports, carrying the same story of a king struggling with a voracious appetite in Ramadan, trace the origins of knafeh to the 15th Century Fatimid Empire, centered in Cairo, under Caliph Abdelmalik bin Marwan. Still other reports claim that knafeh is derived from katayef, which is another popular Arab dish, whose origins lie in 13th Century Baghdad. While its origins are difficult to pinpoint, knafeh today is both a staple of Arab and Palestinian cuisine and emblematic of Palestinian perseverance, culture, and pride.
There are three main variations in preparing knafeh: khishnah (rough), whose crust is made from long noodle threads; na’mah (fine), made from semolina dough; and mhayara (mixed) which, as its name suggests, is made as a mixture of khishnah and mhayara. Additionally, knafeh can be made using jibnah (cheese) or eshta (cream). Traditionally, knafeh is served with crushed pistachios on top.
Nablus, a hub of Palestinian culture and the largest Palestinian city between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, is renowned throughout the Levant for its knafeh, known as knafeh Nabulsiyyeh. The 7th Century Arab conquerors Arabized its Roman name, Neapolis, or “New City”. Nablus is also the where the world’s largest knafeh was made, in 2009, and was recorded in Guinness World’s Record. Mohannad al-Rabbe gathered over 170 bakers from around 10 different Nablus shops, and together baked a knafeh pie over 70 meters long and 1.05 meters wide. This knafeh used 700 kilograms of cheese, 300 kilograms of sugar, 700 kilograms of flour, and 35 kilograms of pistachios, costing over $15,000 to make and ultimately weighing 1,350 kilograms. The measurements of the knafeh were authenticated by the Palestinian Standards Institute, and at least 100,000 gathered in the central Nablus al-Shuhada’ Square to witness the creation of the knafeh. Baking the knafeh took six hours and used 22 cooking gas canisters.
Then-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who attended the making of this knafeh, said, “Today Nablus became not only famous as a producer of knafeh, but also as producer of hope for all of Palestine”. Knafeh purists insist on the traditional character and recipe of knafeh, while the cosmopolitan-minded continue to experiment in new ways to prepare and enjoy knafeh, such as using Nutella filling or creating red, white, and blue ice cream knafeh. Regardless of the virtue of either side, we insist there is no “right” way to enjoy knafeh, which is emblematic of perseverance in hardship and innovation in adversity.
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