The day I discovered k’nafeh: Mexican Lebanese cuisine

We were taking a day off from computers to stroll through the old colonial town of Coyoacán, now just part of Mexico City. We’d taken our shoes to the mender’s tiny shop, jammed with machines and glues and dyes. We’d bought pecans and sliced almonds (almendras fileteadas is the lovely Spanish expression) from the shop that grinds chiles and spices. We’d drunk coffee from Veracruz sitting on an iron bench on a street corner while commenting on the passers by. We’d  poked in the shop that makes lovely leather bags. We’d strolled across the plaza with its organ grinders and balloon sellers.  It was time to eat.

My Lebanese-Mexican friend had to pick up the coffee, bread, stuffed grape leaves, and date pie that she’d ordered from Restaurant Emir on Miguel Angel de Quevedo so we pulled into the parking lot of a small shopping center on Miguel Angel de Quevedo, one of the major east-west streets in the south of the city, lined with bookstores, restaurants, and small businesses.

While the waiter piled the bags in the back of the car, we sat at an outdoor table of this tiny restaurant and ordered drinks, some pale, ivory hummus, a wonderfully smoky baba ganoush (called by a different Arabic name) and raw kibbé.  “Take that back,” said my friend explaining that she did not like the Mexican custom of adding chopped serrano chile on the side in addition to onion and mint.

The plate returned suitably purged of the chile, and as we took our servings, dribbling them with olive oil, friends of the owner began to trickle in for their regular Friday reunion, resulting in rounds of greetings and questions about friends and families.  The restaurant has a heritage of almost a hundred years, the owner’s family establishing the first Lebanese restaurant in Mexico in the historic city center in 1921, and although Lebanese restaurants and coffee shops have proliferated and every grocery store sells hummus and tortillas arabe (aka arab bread), this remains a favorite.

It was early for the Mexican midday meal so we passed on the heavier dishes and ordered their lovely grape leaves, the rice tender but not soggy, firmly packed but not dense, with a nice proportion of small chunks of lamb.

Then it was time for coffee and dessert.  As we contemplated the tray of pastries, we declined the offer of a large lady to read our coffee grounds though various other customers accepted.  Then the owner, Pepe, whispered something in my friend’s ear.  They have “kenefay,” she explained.  They don’t make it every day.

Something that wasn’t on the menu nor made every day sounded like something I should try, even though my friend’s description, “it’s bread and milk,” did not sound so encouraging.  I am no fan of soggy bread.  Forget trifle, pass on the capirotada, don’t offer me bread and butter pudding.

Ten minutes later the dish appeared.  It was about three inches square, 1/2 inch thick, what looked like the finest golden breadcrumbs on the top, what looked like a thick pastrycream beneath, all bathed in a thin syrup.  We each dug in with a teaspoon.

This wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination bread and milk.  It was rich and sweet and creamy, perhaps even a little acidy or cheesy tang and a bit of texture from the topping. Something to savor, not to eat quickly.  A lovely creamy texture, not a bit like the soggy bread I had feared.

So how did you make it?  Well, said my friend, there was a short cut with Pan Bimbo that people used at home but it wasn’t as good.  That slight hint of cheese?  I wanted to ask Pepe but he was deep into cucumber slices, tomato slices, what looked like a Cuba Libre, and conversation with his friends.  “Nata” said the waiter.  Nata is Mexico’s answer to clotted cream and really delicious.  How did you spell it in Spanish?  Well, why would you spell it in Spanish?, said my friend  who is very much part of the intelligensia?  It’s a Arabic word.

As soon as I got home I rushed to Anissa Helou’s Lebanese Cuisine.  There are three or four Mexican Lebanese cookbooks, unusual because immigrant cookbooks in Mexico are few and far between, but I thought Arabic to my native tongue would reveal more than Arabic to Spanish.  And of course, there I tracked it down.  It took a bit because I had to figure out that the golden crust corresponded to the first couple of words in her English title “Shredded pastry and cheese pie”  and that this was not a bit like what I understood by pie.  It could be made with a fresh cheese (she suggests mozzarella as a substitute)  or it could be made with clotted cream. Now  I had an English transliteration.

By now bells were ringing so it was off to Anissa’s blog.  And sure enough,  the alarm bells were right. Anissa had recently blogged about k’nafeh describing it as her favorite breakfast wrapped in sesame bread.  The dish shown in her photo could have been taken in Restaurant Emir, except that they serve it as a dessert and there is no sesame bread.  I’m not sure I could cope with sesame bread as well.  An amazing dish.  See if you can find it.  It’s wonderful.

Here’s a link to a map that shows Restaurant Emir.  It is run by members of the same family as the restaurant of the same name in the historic center.  The coffee shops are a different operation altogether, I understand.

EDIT. My friend says that the best place to eat Lebanese cuisine in the south of the city is in the Centro Libanés which has a Lebanese chef.  No take out, though.

And bit by bit, I will talk more about Lebanese Mexican cuisine, part of my on-going project of understanding the cuisines of Mexico’s immigrants.

 

 

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9 thoughts on “The day I discovered k’nafeh: Mexican Lebanese cuisine

  1. MM Pack

    Rachel, one of my favorite desserts in Austin is, guess what, kanafeh at the tiny Flying Falafel near the UT campus.

    The owners are from Jordan (by way of Louisiana, so they serve Cajun food too); they sprinkle their kanafeh with pistachios instead of the sesame seed galette–and it is heavenly. But I’m not sure why it’s red. Here it is: http://bit.ly/o9U6NB

    You must try it and compare the next time you’re in town!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Looks delicious. It also looks very different (color, phyllo, nuts) from the one I had. Nothing more interesting than culinary diasporas and the changes that go on with dishes.

      Reply
  2. anissa

    how amusing rachel. i have to come to mexico to see you and to try all the different immigrant variations on the traditional lebanese dishes. what are the other lebanese cookbooks? i should get them even if i don’t speak spanish. i probably know the language enough to understand the recipes. is there a bookshop i can order them from? as for the jordanian k’nafeh, the pastry must have been dyed and it is possible that they didn’t crumble the strands. i can’t really tell from the pic. the other thing is that it looks as if there is pastry on the bottom as well as on the top whereas the lebanese has only pastry on top.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Anissa, there’s no one bookstore where you can order these. They seem to be largely self published and sold on the counters in Lebanese coffee shops. I’ll start collecting for you. And of course you should come and see for yourself.

      Reply
  3. Adam Balic

    The Lebanese community in Australia works its way through a lot of k’nafeh. I’ve mostly seen it being eaten by workmen for lunch (in a bread wrapper), not as a dessert thought.

    There is also a similar product made by the Indian community.

    Are the Mexican-Lebanese pre-dominately Christian or Muslim BTW?

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Largely Christian, some Jewish, Adam. It’s an old-established community and very successful.

      Reply
  4. Lesley

    This sounds lovely! I’m bookmarking the restaurant to try later. I’ve also wondered about the Lebanese-Mexican cuisine of Puebla, and how different it is from the restaurants you’d find in DF.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Lesley, I was just thinking about you. Let’s go together sometime. Will give you a call in the next couple of days.

      Reply

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