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Sweet And Cheesy Knafeh Is An Ancient Dessert Going Big In Modern LA

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Knafeh from Los Angeles restaurant Jaffa. (Photo by Nicole Iizuka)
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Knafeh. Kunafa. Kanafe. Kunefe. However you spell it, this dessert of flaky dough and soft cheese topped with rosewater or orange blossom syrup and crushed pistachios is a Middle Eastern classic. Originating between the 10th and 15th centuries, its name comes from the Circassian word chnafah, which means "bulbul color." The bulbul is a songbird found throughout the Middle East and Turkey and the dough in knafeh is often colored with reddish or orange food dye to imitate the color of the bird's vent (an area under its tail).

No one knows precisely where knafeh originated. Some legends place the dessert in 15th century Egypt, others in the Umayyad Empire during the 10th century. In modern times, the city of Nablus in Palestine holds the Guinness World Record for the largest knafeh ever made.

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Sometimes referred to as knafeh jibneh (jibneh is Arabic for "cheese"), the sweet treat is traditionally cooked in a tray over an open fire until the buttery dough forms a crisp crust and the cheese has melted. It is best eaten fresh from the oven. The soft cheese, crunchy pastry and sweet syrup is like the love child of baklava and fried mozzarella sticks.

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There are two different types of knafeh. Khishneh is rougher and topped with crunchy bits of kataifi (a pastry from shredded phyllo dough) while na'ameh is smooth and topped with farkeh (ground semolina dough). Regional variations alter the type of cheese or, in some cases, replace it entirely with cream or custard.

(In this video of kunefe being made, dough is poured through a sieve onto a hot, spinning surface to create the thin filaments that give the dessert its crunch.)

More Americans are discovering the wonders of this cheesy dessert, in some cases, thanks to Trader Joe's, which released a kunefe frozen dessert earlier this summer. Journalist Liana Aghajanian reviewed it on Twitter: "Verdict: It's OK. Something off about the cheese, barely enough syrup or pistachios for it, but if you're in a bind, it will resemble something close to the actual thing. Best to get it from a Middle East bakery."

We agree.

Whether you prefer a knafeh like the ones you'd find on the streets of Amman or a contemporary version influenced by global flavors, here's where to find it around Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The Classicists

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Jack's Bakery

This small, obscure Armenian bakery in Garden Grove has been serving some of the best knafeh in SoCal for more than three decades. Jack's Bakery makes their knafeh khishneh as individual servings and fresh to order, so you can experience the gooey cheese and crunch of the kataifi pastry the way it's meant to be enjoyed.

  • 10515 Mcfadden Ave #107, Garden Grove.
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Knafeh Cafe

There are a few places to get knafeh in Anaheim's Little Arabia district and Knafeh Cafe is one of the most popular. Owner Asem Abusir, who comes from Nablus, serves knafeh khishneh and knafeh na'ameh, both based on an old family recipe.

  • 866 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim.

Victory Sweets

Among the many choices for Middle Eastern desserts in Little Arabia, Victory Sweets is a local favorite. The fresh cheese that owner Abo Ali uses for his knafeh combined with his scratch-made kataifi dough and rosewater syrup results in a great version of the dessert.

  • 9057 W. Cerritos Ave., Anaheim.
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Nuka Cafe

Westwood's sleek Nuka Cafe is the new kid on the block but the knafeh at this Turkish spot is old school. Their version (kunefe in Turkish) is baked to order using fresh kataifi pastry in a traditional metal dish.

  • 1510 Westwood Blvd., Westwood.

The Modernists

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Cairo Restaurant & Cafe

Cairo Restaurant & Cafe, an Egyptian restaurant, serves traditional knafeh but also offers a newfangled version. It's stuffed with chocolate custard and coated with a spread of Nutella.

  • 10832 Katella Ave., Anaheim.
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Four Winters

You won't find an actual knafeh at this liquid nitrogen ice cream shop that got its start in Jordan but one of Four Winters' signature flavors is knafeh. They blend their ice cream with kataifi dough and simple syrup, then top it with pistachios.

  • 8065 W. 3rd St., Beverly Grove.

The Breakfast Lovers

Sarkis Pastry

Sarkis Pastry is a Lebanese bakery with multiple locations in L.A. and Orange counties. It specializes in knafeh na'ameh (the smooth kind) as well as ka'ket knafeh. The savory sesame bread is an unexpectedly wonderful vessel for the rich knafeh and sweet orange blossom syrup.

  • 1111 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale.2424 Ball Rd., Anaheim.
  • 1776 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena.

The Not So Cheesy

Sunnin Lebanese Bakery

As knafeh makes it way around the Middle East, sometimes it takes on a new form and a new name. Sunnin Lebanese Bakery in Westwood serves knafeh b'ashta, also known as osmalieh, a variation in which the cheese is replaced by ashta cream, an Arabic clotted cream made with a touch of orange blossom water and rose water. A hint of ginger also distinguishes their syrup from the rest.

  • 1779 Westwood Blvd., Westwood.
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Carousel Restaurant

Popular Lebanese restaurant Carousel serves knafeh b'ashta with ashta cream but instead of preparing large trays of the stuff, they make individual portions with the ashta sandwiched between two layers of crisp kataifi.

  • 5112 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.304 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
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Hummus Bar and Grill

The Israeli Hummus Bar and Grill inside the Tarzana Village Shopping Center serves a knafeh mallabi. Instead of cheese, the knafeh is made using mallabi. Sometimes spelled muhallebi, it's a milk pudding similar to blancmange that is popular throughout the middle east.

  • 18743 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana.
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