When you bite into a hot, sweet kanafa cup, you’re not just indulging in one of the most iconic (and addictive) desserts from the Arab world, you’re tasting a piece of Palestine. Shadin Hamdan, a 25-year-old Palestinian-American baker, started her Kanafa Cups business as a hobby over Ramadan during Covid. “It was intended for my friends and family only and then I decided to start an Instagram page. I didn’t think I would be launching a business because I was studying for my Master’s in education. I thought it would just be a ‘Ramadan thing.’ Alhamdulillah with all the support I got from the community it just grew bigger and bigger,” she recounts. Post-pandemic, her pop-ups in New York City saw her sweet treats become an instant hit beyond the Arab and Muslim community. “We would make 1 300 cups a night, with lines of people waiting outside stretching around the block, and we would always sell out.”
Kanafa is the most famous of Palestinian desserts, originating in the city of Nablus. It traditionally takes the form of a large tray of spun, angel-hair dough stuffed with a sweet cheese like mozzarella and baked to crunchy, golden perfection. It’s then doused with a fragrant orange-blossom syrup, sprinkled with ground pistachios, and enjoyed as soon as it comes off the flame. “Growing up, we would always go to Sitti’s (my grandmother’s) house, and she would make kanafa for us. We couldn’t wait to have it. My cousins and I would help her in the kitchen; at the time, I never imagined that I would be making it for the rest of my life. Sitti helped me to perfect the recipe, with a secret ingredient that makes it unique.”
Since starting her business, Hamdan has seen firsthand the role that food plays in building bridges across cultures and religions. “We’re all human and we all love food. What better way to share our own cultures than through our food? My best friend is Italian and had never heard of kanafa. Then she tried it and loved it; her family too. She’s a teacher now and she knows about Ramadan. She had one student fasting and she asked her if she was celebrating Eid. That student’s face lit up because her teacher wasn’t Arab or Muslim, but she understood what Eid was. Growing up I didn’t have that. I said to her, ‘Do you know what you just did? That kid is going to go home and tell her parents that her teacher understood what Eid was. That’s going to mean the world to them because it’s still not spoken about here.’ Even though the Arab and Muslim community in New York is huge, Ramadan and Eid are still not known.” Being an openly Palestinian entrepreneur in New York is not easy, but Hamdan is determined to break down barriers. “With my business, I try to emphasize that we are Palestinian-owned, because we are often afraid of hate and backlash. Palestine doesn’t get talked about in conversations. You often feel like you’re not seen, and your feelings are invalid.”
Hamdan’s burgeoning fan base includes Palestinian-American supermodel Bella Hadid, who was gifted one of her custom-made kanafa birthday cakes. “That was just huge on its own. When I first started, I said that my dream was to open a café and to have Bella Hadid try my kanafa. I couldn’t believe it when Bella’s make-up artist Nadia reached out to order a birthday cake for her. Nadia was already a customer, so when I saw the DM from her, I went crazy. I was overwhelmed with joy! To see something that came from my house in Staten Island reach Bella Hadid, and to see her post about it was surreal. I cried happy tears for two weeks straight because I couldn’t believe it. It meant so much because Bella and the Hadids are such a powerful voice for Palestinians.”
Hamdan traveled to Palestine for the first time with her family, who are refugees, in the summer of 2022, visiting her parent’s hometown of Beit Hanina. “It was a powerful experience because for the first time we saw what our parents were talking about all these years, about our land and our homes that we lost as they were taken over. It was overwhelmingly emotional, and there were tears shed as we drove through Palestine. I grew up in Florida and New York, and to be surrounded by our people in Palestine was so beautiful. For the first time, we felt this was home.”
The baker explains that Kanafa Cups has since become a family affair. “My dad brings me the ingredients from his supermarket, and my mom, my sister, and my cousins often help me fulfill orders. It’s not just my accomplishment; it’s my whole family’s. I have days when I feel discouraged and run down, but they keep me going.” As her business grows, Hamdan has started shipping kanafa cups all over the United States, especially when she gets special orders from the likes of social media stars such as Mai and Max Maxwell. She still dreams of opening her own café, knowing she has her community behind her.
Originally published in the April 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Makeup: Islam Allan