A decadent Middle Eastern dessert finds a home in India

Kunafa, a warm, indulgent Middle Eastern dessert, is being reinvented for a world obsessed with discovering the undiscovered. It made its India debut in Mangalore and is now wowing food lovers in four different cities.

As I bite into a little bit of paradise, the Kunafa, from under a layered crust oozes out a creamy pastry that’s not too sweet. The somewhat savoury, crispy orange and green crust complements the sweet pudding it envelops beautifully.  At its heart is a stringy white briny cheese.

The classic Kunafa: Cheese encased in crisp phyllo pastry. Kunafa originated in Pallestine but is now eaten aross the Middle Eastern world. Image: Courtesy Kunafa World.

I am at Kunafa World, one of Mumbai’s newest eateries, nah, dessert parlour, which only serves Kunafa, a Palestinian dessert which is also known as one of the Middle East’s finest desserts.

So, what is Kunafa

The buttery and flaky spun pastry has a creamy flavoured with cheese encased in crisp, savoury phyllo (a thin, unleavened dough used for making pastries such as baklava and börek in Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines). It is slathered on the top with a not-too-sweet sugar and saffron-infused syrup and speckled with pistachios.

Almost every region in the Middle East has its own version of the Kunafa. In Turkey, dessert chefs use a metal mould to make this flaky pastry and use a stringy sweet cheese made from sheep and cow milk. It is topped off with whipped cream. In Lebanon, the pastry dough is made from semolina flour and the cheese is mozzarella.

Jordan adds a bit of ricotta and some raisins and crushed nuts.  It is variously known as Knafeh, künefeand Kunafa. Interestingly, in the Balkans, the shredded dough is known as kadaif, and in Greece as kataifi. It forms the foundation of various rolled or layered desserts infused with nuts and sweet syrups. Nothing narrates the story of human’s migration as fascinatingly as food does.

Kunafa’s India debut

The delicate pastry made its debut in India, in Bengaluru a while ago. Home baker Jameela Ruhi, from Mangalore, happened to remember this delicacy and served it to her husband Zamzeer Ahmad who was naturally besotted. He suggested they sell it online in the coastal city. That’s what they did. So good was the demand that Hafeez Kudroli of Kudroli World (a Goa-based infrastructure company) decided to invest in their dream and helped them set up the first outlet in Bengaluru, and quickly expanded to Kochi and Vijayawada.

Mumbai resident Dr Arshia Siddique, quite a Renaissance woman (she is a skin doctor, besides running Kunafa World) brought it to Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, a stretch known for experimental food spaces. Interestingly, at the outlet, Kunefes are made on rotating burners, crafted by her own company, on which various versions of Kunefes are cooked in front of the customer.

Kunafa nutella cones
Kunafa Nutella Cones is a contemporary way of serving kunafas. Image: Courtesy Kunafa World.

Traditionally, in Palestine, the kadayıf (or the phyllo crust) is not rolled around the cheese. Instead, cheese is put in between two layers of wiry kadayıf. It is cooked in small copper plates, and then served very hot in syrup with clotted cream (kaymak) and topped with pistachios or walnuts.

Mumbai’s Kunafa World serves the traditional, of course. But it also serves the experimental: Nutella Kunafa, Nutty Kunafa, Caramel Kunafa, Chef’s Feast Kunafa and the rather sweet Oreo, Kit-Kat, Snickers, Bounty, Ferrero Rocher, besides the Lotus Biscoff Kunafa, a kunafa that comes in a Nutella cone. “I found the balance between the crispness of the crust and the creaminess of the cheesy pastry within rather enticing, which I decided to bring it to Mumbai. We experimented by serving it in Nutella cones and creating different flavour profiles, but I personally like the classic,” says Dr Siddique.

Kunafa 2
Kunafa World and Dope Coffee’s newest Dope Coffee Cone Kunafa is creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside.

My favourite is the original Nabulsi Kunafafrom Palestine, made using Nabulsi cheese. Originating in the Nabuls in the northern West Bank region, the semi-hard, dense cheese is made for pasteurised goat’s or sheep’s milk. Its inherent salty character takes the sweet edge out of the Nabulsi Kunafa.

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