Kunafeh, kanafeh, kunfah, konafeh, kunefe, knefe, kadayf... no matter how you see it spelled, when you travel through Jordan, you will encounter this delicate pastry everywhere from crowded bazaars to dedicated bakery shops. So beloved is kunafeh that in Amman it is a staple dessert for every social gathering.
Variations of kunafeh are popular throughout the region, bordering on obsession. It’s no wonder: start with melt-in-your-mouth white brined cheese, soak it in sweet syrup with drops of rose (or sometimes orange blossom) water and top with crushed pistachios for a bite that has just the right balance of savoury and sweet, crunchy and soft, and warm and cool sensations. Two main types of the sweet exist. Bird’s nest-like khishnah kunafeh has a hard crust made with wired kadaif noodles, while na’ama kunafeh features a softer semolina dough crust.
Like its contested spelling, kunafeh has many origin stories. One of them traces the pastry to Nablus, an ancient city in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories (it is said that visitors to Nablus have not truly seen the city until they have tasted its kunafeh). Over centuries, kunafeh has become a favourite across the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and even Greece each claim their own names, pronunciations and recipes.
Home to a large Palestinian community, Amman knows a thing or two about kunafeh. Dessert bakeries here have gained an especially strong foothold, and long queues to get the warm, crunchy cheese goodness are not an uncommon sight.
On your next trip, don’t miss the pleasure of tasting many varieties of Amman’s favourite sweet. Here is our pick of the best kunafeh shops to visit in Jordan’s capital.
Start your kunafeh excursion at Habibah. Considered to be the best in Amman, the renowned 70-year-old bakery is a local institution, with multiple locations spread throughout the city. For an authentic Amman experience, visit the original branch downtown by the Arab Bank. Tucked inside a narrow alley between a newsstand and an internet cafe, the small shop is always packed. Most of the space is taken up by several large metal trays of kunafeh, prepared here in a traditional Nabulsieh way: with ample servings of rose water syrup and delightfully stretchy soft Akkawi cheese. Look no further than Habibah for a true kunafeh obsession: patrons have been known to request their kunafeh served inside a sweet sesame bun, turning this dessert into the ultimate calorie-defying sugary sandwich.
Al Sahel Al Akhdar Sweets
Unless you're a local, chances are Al Sahel Al Akhdar is going to pass under your radar. Perched atop the highest hill in Amman, Jebel Al Ashrafiyeh, the spacious shop with long kunafeh counters is a required stop if only to relish the views alongside your dessert plate. Place your order with a cheery server from a wide selection of kunafeh and baklava varieties and then step outside into a quiet courtyard where the grand black-and-white chequered mosque, Abu Darwish, rises above the city. After the sugar hits, stroll through the neighbourhood and enjoy the expansive views as the boisterous streets of Amman stretch in all directions.
Come to the heart of Amman, Jebel Amman Second Circle, to savour Syrian kunafeh. Opened by a prominent Syrian brand, Nafeeseh Sweets serves a wide variety of traditional Arabic treats. Stepping inside the brightly lit shop is akin to unwrapping long-awaited holiday presents. The festive counters overflow with trays upon trays of hard- and soft-crust kunafeh, baklava and other Syrian sweets. Adding to the festive mood in Nafeeseh is the constant clatter of cutlery as the mostly Syrian employees serve up multiple kunafeh plates at a time. Try the madloo’a, a soft pistachio cream pastry with candied lemon, and don’t forget to pick up a package or two of kunafeh to take home.
The newest addition to Amman’s kunafeh bakery lineup, Atir Dessert has amassed a loyal fan following in the few months since it has been opened. This shop with a hip vibe is located in Jebel Lweibdeh, the expats’ favourite district, where a budding arts and culture scene meets rich historical heritage. Atir’s distressed wood design and understated blue and brown decor encourage lounging for hours while shop owners – and fellow kunafeh lovers – Jinan Dalloul and Fawwaz Soufan make guests feel as if Atir is their home away from home. Kunafeh here parts with tradition: in addition to customary pistachios, toppings like ice cream, whole cream or even Nutella are on the menu. The best part? Your made-to-order kunafeh is baked fresh in front of you on a massive eight-burner stove.
Al Aker Sweets
With its main branches in Qatar’s capital Doha, Al Aker Sweets bakery is an unlikely contender in Amman’s kunafeh game. Located in the suburban Tla Al Ali district on the busy Al Madina Al Munawarah St – referred to as ‘hungry people’s street’ by locals for its abundance of open-late restaurants and food shops – Al Aker is worth the trek. Some of the traditional sweets on display include warbat, a baklava-like pastry with a cream filling, and namoora, a drier cousin of kunafeh made with semolina and cream. But kunafeh is undoubtedly Al Aker’s main draw. Those in the know claim that it is the closest to the original Nablus recipe. The cheese used here is not too sweet and not particularly salty. It is, as the bakery’s fans attest, just right.