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The Dribble With Pastry

May 26, 1999|CHARLES PERRY

As anybody who's been to an Armenian pastry shop knows, filo isn't the only exotic Middle Eastern dough. There's also one, known as kuna^fa in Arabic and kataifi in Greek, that looks like shredded wheat cereal.

It's often described as a sort of vermicelli, but it's not really a pasta. You make it by dribbling strings of batter onto a warm griddle, where they dry and firm up. To turn them into a pastry, you fry or bake a thatch of raw strands and serve them with syrup and a filling of nuts or sweetened cheese.

This crunchy pastry has a somewhat obscure history. The word kuna^fa evidently comes from Egypt, where kenephiten was the name of a flat bread in the ancient Coptic language, but we don't know much about what kenephiten was like.

In the Middle Ages, as Arab cookbooks make clear, kuna^fa had come to mean a particularly thin crepe (the Arabic word for crepe is "qata^'if," so now you know where the Greek name "kataifi" comes from). But it was not fried in a pan like a crepe.

Instead, you made a batter by kneading dough hard and then gradually diluting it with water, and you poured it onto a sheet of polished metal known as a mirror. The "mirror" was heated, so when you poured off the excess batter, a sheet of dough stuck, and that was the kuna^fa.

In some medieval recipes the kuna^fa is used as is, but others say to cut it up with scissors into rose petal or noodle shapes and then fry them and mix them with syrup. This is already pretty close to the modern pastry, and in the Middle Ages some cook hit on the idea of dribbling the batter onto the "mirror" for ready-made strips. The tool to do it was already on hand, because Middle Eastern confectioners had always made fritters called zula^biya by dribbling the same sort of batter into boiling oil.

It had taken only 500 years or so, but "shredded wheat" had been invented.

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