Food & Drink

You Gotta Try This: Falafel & Shawarma Planet’s hidden gem is a dessert called knafeh

This is the third installment of “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Comment below or email reporter Benjy Egel at begel@sacbee.com.

Raed Eisa left an engineering job in Saudi Arabia to move his wife and four children to Elk Grove in 2015. The only thing the Falafel & Shawarma Planet owner misses about home, he said, is the food.

Though Halal food has taken off in the Sacramento area in recent years, it’s not quite like Eisa remembered. He’d rather slurp down a baked potato soup from Chili’s than pick through chicken that he says doesn’t taste right, or deal with spice combinations more south Asian than Middle Eastern, he said.

“We used to go every other day to restaurants, sit down and have a meal as a family,” Eisa said. “When we came here, we couldn’t really satisfy our habit to go out and have some dinner, some food (the way we wanted), so we decided to have our own restaurant.”

When Eisa opened Falafel & Shawarma Planet in February 2017, he wanted it to have the staples done right as well as a particular dessert rarely found in the Sacramento area — knafeh.

A Palestinian dessert popular throughout the Middle East, knafeh is a syrupy, gooey combination of phyllo dough, honey, rose water and cheese. A single order takes 12 to 15 minutes to prepare, which can feel like an eternity in the fast-casual restaurant tucked away next to 99 Ranch Market near the intersection of Franklin Boulevard and Florin Road.

Housemade kadayif, or shredded phyllo, is cooled for two days before being ground finely. When an order is placed, the kadayif comes out of the refrigerator and covers the bottom of a butter-greased pan.

A cook then covers that layer with a blend of four white cheeses, including one made in house from goat milk, and a top sheet of kadayif. It’s cooked over a high flame until the bottom is golden-brown, then flipped. Once plated, the knafeh is doused in honey and topped with clusters of chopped pistachios.

Knafeh is traditionally made with a white brine cheese from the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, hence its full name: knafeh nabulsi. Eisa’s in-house blend is the closest Falafel and Shawarma Planet can get to what he remembers in terms of taste and texture, he said.

Though knafeh (also spelled kunafa, kanafah, kunafeh or various other transliterations) is most commonly stuffed with Nablus cheese, Falafel and Shawarma Planet will soon roll out a cold, cream-filled Turkish version topped with stringy, hardened phyllo, Eisa said. The menu also includes an extremely westernized variation stuffed with Nutella — with a scoop of ice cream optional on top.

Knafeh’s origin story has been muddied over time. Some believe it was invented to satiate a 7th century king fasting for Ramadan in present-day Syria, while others say it came about during the 10th century in what’s now Egypt. The addition of Nablus cheese is all Palestinian, which one Nablusian honored by creating a 75-meter, 1,350-kilogram knafeh to set the Guinness World Record in 2009.

Knafeh can be found in two-bite rolls alongside baklava in display cases or, as is the case at Falafel & Shawarma Planet, filling an entire pan. Though only about a quarter of Falafel & Shawarma Planet’s clientele are of Middle Eastern descent, those customers buy most of the 15 to 20 knafehs the restaurant goes through daily during the winter months, Eisa said.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
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