A British Baker Puts a New Spin on Knafeh, a Classic Arabic Dessert
In his Jaffa café, London native Danny Phillips hopes that savory, sweet, and vegan pastries can bring Arabs and Jews together
Every Israeli has an opinion about which hummus is the best in the country. But real food connoisseurs will also tell you where to find Israel’s best knafeh, an exquisite cheese-filled pastry.
Knafeh, which can be bought in most Arab or Circassian bakeries in Israel, usually consists of one or two layers of thin and crunchy kadaif noodles, soft white cheese, sugar syrup, and ground pistachio nuts. Many varieties can be found in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria, and northern Egypt; something very similar is made in Turkey and Greece. But knafeh is also part of Israel’s culinary DNA. One of Israeli songwriter Ehud Banai’s classic songs is called “Ha-knafeh metuka”—meaning “the knafeh is sweet”; the song waxes nostalgic about Jerusalem’s Old City, where you can easily stumble upon giant copper trays serving bright-orange knafeh, which is served warm with the cheese half-melted, accompanied by a tiny cup of strong Turkish coffee.
Earlier this year, a new café opened that has already been lauded by Israel’s knafeh-lovers as a force to be reckoned with. Knaffe Noga, a white-washed café-bar in Jaffa’s gentrified and artistic Noga district, serves a wide variety of the pastry. There are different sweet knafehs—classic or with halva, coconut, or cinnamon—and an impressive range of vegan variations, where coconut cream replaces the cheese. And then there’s Knaffe Noga’s main innovation: savory knafeh, served as a main course with a small cabbage salad on the side.
What raises eyebrows more than the types of knafeh sold at the café is the man behind it: Danny Phillips, a Brit. “It had to happen at some point,” Phillips told me with a smile in a recent interview. “It’s like pizza. No one blinks an eyelid that there are hundreds of kinds of pizzas and that everyone is doing it; it doesn’t matter. I think it’s a sign of what is happening in the world. I think that if there’s something beautiful like authentic Middle Eastern food, then everybody should try and do it.”
Phillips was born in London to an Israeli mother with Yemenite roots, while his father is British with Russian and Portuguese roots. In England, Phillips was a therapist and owned a fashion company, but his culinary background was limited: He had a flatmate in London who was a chef, with whom he opened a bruschetta stall in Portobello Market.
He made aliyah in 2007, although he didn’t have any specific projects in mind. “My plan was to check out Israel and see what’s going to happen,” he told me.
Then he discovered the dessert that would become his passion.
“My first knafeh was in Daliyat al-Karmel [a Druze town near Haifa], when I first came over,” he said. “The combination of cheese and sweet didn’t sound right. It didn’t work for me in my head, and then I tried it and was really surprised. That’s the experience I remember—that sense of surprise, that feeling of tasting something you’ve never tasted before. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to transfer over to what we’re doing. When people try our savory knafeh they have the same reaction I had when I first had knafeh. That feeling of ‘it’s incredible, it’s brilliant, and I never thought of it!’ ”
Shiri Katz, food writer for Time Out Tel Aviv, has heard Phillips talk about the excitement of his first knafeh before. “Phillips told me that the first time he tasted knafeh he was in shock,” she told me. “And I can understand why. Real knafeh is like bursting out laughing in the middle of a party and all the while not being sure if the joke is on you. Ripe goat cheese stings you, and extreme sweetness floods all your senses. He told me he didn’t really like it at first but that it didn’t let go of him either, it became his obsession.”
It still took Phillips a few more years, however, to recognize knafeh as a business opportunity. After living in Ein Hod for a while, he relocated to Jaffa. Last year, he stumbled upon an opportunity to open a stand in the farmer’s market in the port of Jaffa, so he decided to open a pop-up knafeh stand with his friend Mati Zadok. Phillips started researching the pastry: “My research consisted of traveling everywhere,” he said, “visiting a lot of small dairy farms, tasting, a lot of trial and error.”
The stand, which operated for four months, was successful. “Even the restaurant opposite us used to order knafeh for their clients,” said Phillips. A few months after the stand closed, Phillips and Zadok decided to open a café devoted to knafeh—which was a new concept in itself; normally knafeh is one of many items on the menu at a bakery making several kinds of Arabic pastries. They decided to launch the business in the large studio apartment where Phillips had been living in Jaffa and spent eight months redesigning the space. “Before we opened Knaffe Noga, I devoted two more months to research,” he added. “There was one month of heavy driving everywhere. I was sleeping in the car and moving from place to place.”
When I asked him whose knafeh he liked best, he answered cheekily: “Except for my own?” But then he listed some of his personal favorites that he’d tried around the country: “In Nazareth you can get excellent knafeh at a traditional sweet store called El-Muchtar and also at the restaurant Diana,” he said. “There is excellent knafeh in Yarka that a small Druze family makes, I can’t remember the name, and there’s an old guy in Damascus Gate at the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, who wheels in his stuff at a specific time of the day.”
One of the things Phillips researched the longest was the cheese. “I’m always experimenting with new cheeses, and I use many different kinds. I use different kind of cheese mixes for the sweet knafehs. I usually mix goat and sheep cheese, or use only sheep cheese, but I want to try buffalo cheese as well,” he said. “Traditionally knafeh is made with goat’s or sheep’s cheese, but most knafeh nowadays isn’t anymore because it’s very expensive. So, people use cow’s cheese instead. A lot of people do different things to keep the costs down. Eventually if you cover everything with enough syrup it’s going to taste all right. I try to use a minimum amount of syrup. The idea behind what we do is to keep the sweet sauce to a minimum so you can taste the samnah, the kadaif, and the cheese.”
Samnah is the Arabic version of ghee—a sort of clarified butter, which is traditionally prepared by simmering butter and removing the residue. “Nowadays the samnah most people use for making knafeh or baklava is made out of vegetable oil,” Phillips told me. “We use a Turkish brand made out of palm oil.”
Phillips’ pastries won fans quickly—even those who might have been skeptical about the unusual varieties he was creating. “I don’t think that traditional confectioners and Arabic housewives ever dreamt of knafeh with Belgian chocolate or with halva,” culinary journalist, television personality, and cookbook writer Gil Hovav told me. “But Phillips’ classic sweet knafeh is absolutely perfect, so he earned the right to advance to more creative recipes.”
There were a lot of little reasons I was unhappy. But ultimately, I realized I didn’t need to belong to a temple to feel Jewish.