Toronto·Suresh Doss

It took years to perfect this Scarborough Kunafeh recipe

Kunafa's is at 1801 Lawrence Ave E, Toronto.

Kunafa's is at 1801 Lawrence Ave E, Toronto

Kunafeh is a sweet dessert known for its cheese pull. (Suresh Doss)

Food writer Suresh Doss, in conversation with CBC Metro Morning host Ismaila Alfa, recommends kunafeh for a Valentine's Day dessert.

Suresh Doss: Kunafeh is this layered sheet dessert, and it has a bright orange top. Picture a softer, milkier, kind of richer version of a cheesecake. It is very gooey in the centre and there's this sort of crisp lacy dome on top. 

You slice it in squares and as you lift it, you can see this glorious cheese pull. It's a very visually striking dessert. It had a moment a few years ago because of Instagram and that cheese pull. It's very photogenic. 

But despite that viral popularity and the fact that we have literally hundreds of Middle Eastern restaurants in the GTA, kunafeh is still hard to find, even on Shawarma Row, one of the best places to eat through the Levant in the GTA. 

Kunafa's owners, Basim Jubran, left, and Shadi Issa, right, spent years perfecting their Kunafeh recipe. (Suresh Doss)

Ismaila Alfa: It sounds delicious and, the way you described it, I may even get it just to look at it. Sounds beautiful. So where is your favourite place for kunafeh?

Suresh Doss: I've wanted to share this for some time. In fact, I did my photos and interview last year just before we went into lockdown, almost a year ago. It's a place on Shawarma Row  — that's on Lawrence Avenue East in Wexford, Scarborough — it's called Kunafa's. Here is owner Basim Jubran.

"Show me a cheese pull and I'll tell you if it's a good kunafeh or not. You can tell in the texture, the look of the cheese. You can tell when you bite into it, the dough. Is it made from semolina or is it made from real flour?"

Kunafeh is made with special dough, cheese, pistachios and syrup. (Suresh Doss)

Ismaila Alfa: So, what else is in kunafeh?

Suresh Doss: There are only really a handful of ingredients that go into the dish. There's a base layer, which is this flavoured ghee that is spread on this big pan. Then you have either the soft dough, which is called the nama dough. Or this crispy dough which is called the ataifa dough which looks kind of like vermicelli.

Then there's a generous layer of nabulsi which is this soft white brine cheese that goes on top. It's then baked carefully, then it's flipped carefully and dressed with pistachios and  syrup. The complicated part is not just the technique, but the ingredients themselves. 

Ismaila Alfa: The cheese and the dough?

Suresh Doss: Yes, those two ingredients, there's quite a bit of R&D that has gone into it . Here's Basim explaining some of the process and research. 

"I'm the biggest kunafeh fan there is, going back home almost every summer growing up to Palestine. The first thing I do off the plane is look for the first kunafeh joint. A few years ago, I started to question why can't I, as a Torontonian, have the same thing here. It's really hard to make, though. You have to have specialized equipment to make it, obviously know the recipe. We had to go back home and spend a lot of time working the kitchens, learning from the best."

Kunafeh is served as a bright orange sheet topped with syrup and pistachios. (Suresh Doss)

Ismaila Alfa: Sounds like they've gone the distance to recreate that Palestinian kunafeh experience.

Suresh Doss: The closest I got to experience the real thing was in the Muslim quarters in Jerusalem, at the Old City Market. You go through these tiny subterranean alleys, passing hundreds of stalls and there are these small cafes that will have large presentations of kunafeh. You see cheese pull after cheese pull. 

So in order to do that, Basim and [co-owner] Shadi [Issa] wanted to make sure they nailed the dough and cheese. After two years of searching, they found a producer in Ontario who makes the ataifa dough exactly the way they want it. And the cheese, made with Ontario cow milk as well, which arrives in large blocks, and is eventually desalinated and cut into small curds. 

They've managed to make this really amazing copy, if not better, using Canadian ingredients. 

Ismaila Alfa: Better than the version you had at the Old City Market?

Suresh Doss: There's just something about the cheese itself. The pull is great, and the cheese, if you can picture it, looks like mozzarella but not at all when you taste it. There's a milky quality to it. 

A snapshot from Suresh's 2018 visit to the Muslim quarters of the Old City Market in Jerusalem. (Suresh Doss)

Ismaila Alfa: So what do we order when we're at Kunafa's?

Suresh Doss: So there are two main items on the menu. The crispy kunafeh, which is the ghee, ataifa dough, then the cheese, and it's finished with pistachios. Once you receive it, it gets a generous pouring of syrup. The soft version is predominantly the popular variety in the Middle East, but here I want you to try the crispy version because it's my favourite.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.