In an epic Bay Ridge-style tragedy, folks outside of the Arab community might still be unaware of Nablus Sweets (6812 Fifth Avenue), a small, family-owned Palestinian sweets shop that has been serving up knafeh and other treats for years. There is no excuse for this, and we at Hey Ridge want to help. So if you’re sitting there wondering what that “knafeh” word means, then this post is for you, and your life is about to change. Below is a short guide to five delicious sweets that you can get right in your own neighborhood, complete with pronunciation keys.
Knafeh / Kunafeh / Kenafa / كنافة (keh-NEH-feh)
Knafeh is perhaps the best known—and the most indulgent—option at Nablus. Knafeh can be found throughout the Arab world in a variety of styles, but knafeh nabulseah (the style named after Nablus, Palestine) is hot cheese topped with shredded wheat (traditionally dyed orange), and doused in a sugary-sweet syrup. That’s right, hot and sweet cheese. If you go to Nablus, you’ll see this presented in a large, round pan, which hopefully will still be steaming. In my opinion, knafeh must be served hot, so don’t be scared to ask them if the serving is fresh; if not, they’ll warm it up for you. Or, grab some to go and heat it up at home. The traditional serving style is a small, 3×5 styrofoam tray, which will typically cost around $6 and keep you happy for one or two sittings.
They may ask you if you want extra syrup. Don’t kid yourself. Of course you want extra syrup.
Basbousa / بسبوسة (bas-BOO-sah)
Personally, basbousa is a little sweet even for someone who is writing about sweets in her spare time, but many swear by it. Basbousa is a small square of baked semolina flour, which has been soaked in sugar syrup and a few drops of rose water. It is typically topped with a raw almond or walnut. You may also hear this referred to as “harisa” (hah-REE-sah), which is almost identical, with some regional variation on how much rosewater is used, or whether or not the baker is adding coconut. This is for those with the ultimate sweet tooth who don’t mind a sometimes slightly soggy texture.
Baklava / Baklawa / بقلاوة (Bah-KLAH-vah)
No mysteries here. Baklava is familiar to most, but the Middle Eastern variation is largely with more syrup, and in my experience, it tends to be less crispy and with less pistachio than the Turkish or Greek version. It can, however, be a lot sweeter, so buyer beware. Please note: many would argue that Cedars, a sweets shop also on Fifth Avenue, features better baklawa. I will leave that to the reader. There is also a new Turkish option, Antepli, in between the two! Looks like you’re making an afternoon of this.
Ma3moul / Ma’amoul / معمول (Mah-MOOL)
Though not my personal favorite (read: it does not contain hot cheese), ma3moul is a must-have if want to taste a truly traditional sweet. Ma3moul are shortbread cookies usually stuffed with dates or figs, and they are customarily a part of any Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr celebration. Unlike the other entries on this list, these cookies are not overly sweet, and they can be good with coffee for curbing a small, mid-day craving. Again, since they’re common, you can get them at nearly every Middle Eastern grocery in the neighborhood. But Nablus does it right.
(N.B. the unusual 3 is a transliteration tool to indicate the arabic letter “ein,” which sounds like “aa-ii-ee-n” but with a sort of glottal-ness to the a.)
Katayef / Qatayef / قطايف (Kah-TA-yiff)
More hot cheese! Qatayef is not something typically eaten year-round; it’s customary to eat during Ramadan as a dessert after iftar (the meal that breaks the fast). Qatayef are little crepe-like pancakes that are filled with hot cheese or a nut mixture, and then once again drizzled in a sugary sweet syrup. If you pass by Nablus Sweets during the month of Ramadan (it will be mostly during June in 2016), you’ll see the qatayef being made fresh on a big, round hot plate, and everyone will be stocking up for the evening. Don’t miss this opportunity, and grab some for the family. Just don’t go asking for Qatayef tomorrow. That’s a rookie move. If I can wait till June, you can too.
As they say in Arabic: sahtein! Enjoy, and let us know what you think!