by Rafaël Newman
In the summer of 1977 my father invited me to tea at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens. I had turned 13 that spring, and instead of a bar mitzvah, prohibited by matrilineal descent and an antipathy to organized religion, my father and I were en route to Israel, to visit the kibbutz where he had worked in the mid-1950s. We had flown from Vancouver to Amsterdam, proceeded by train to Rome, and continued by rail across Italy to Brindisi, by ferry to Patras, and by coach to Athens. From there we would eventually embark, at Piraeus, on the crossing to Haifa; for the moment we were enjoying some sightseeing in the Greek capital.
We were by now already several days into a three-week trip and I was slowly adjusting to the oddness of being alone with my father in unfamiliar territory. At our first stop the exciting absurdity of the canals in Amsterdam had made up somewhat for nine hours of jetlag; my New World teenage composure, however, was tested by the shared bathroom on the corridor of our Dutch hotel. It was the first of several jarring encounters. On the train bound south from Holland we were interrogated at the German border by a customs guard, who had entered our sleeping compartment and, at the sight of a youth with an older man, their journey having originated in Amsterdam, had me roll up my sleeve so he could check for tracks. Later, in the dormitory of the youth hostel in Rome in which my father’s salary as an assistant professor had billeted us, I awoke in my bunkbed to see a fellow guest naked in the middle of the room, gingerly applying salve to his posterior.
Now, in Athens, the affronts of the Old World were less in evidence to my prudery. At the Hotel Grande Bretagne, at any rate – not where we were putting up, of course, but to which we had merely repaired for the afternoon, my father no doubt having read about it in one of his venerable entertainments, by Eric Ambler, perhaps, or Ian Fleming – we lounged like gentlemen in the palm-laced, oriental-carpeted lobby, awaiting a silver étagère of baklava from a liveried attendant.
Baklava was not entirely foreign to me, although I was still mildly disoriented by the word’s echo of “Balaclava”, oddly both an item of skiwear and a renowned battle of the Empire, as commemorated among the themed street names of my father’s British Columbian neighborhood. When the assortment arrived I recognized some of the pistachio-studded lozenges and cylinders from the display cases in diners on Park Avenue, the Greektown in my birthplace of Montreal. One of the pastries, however, was entirely new to me, a confection of what looked like dyed shredded wheat and custard, and which the waiter obligingly identified as κανταΐφι, or “kataïphi”. I gingerly assayed it – and was enchanted by its marriage of textures, as well as mildly drugged by its salty, syrupy sweetness. The novelty of eating what looked like breakfast for dessert, in the middle of a hotel lobby, was sufficiently impressive to motivate an entry in my diary later. I noted my first taste of what I transcribed as “cata-eef” alongside mention of the eye-catching pompoms on the ceremonial slippers of the guards outside the Greek parliament building, catty corner to the grand hotel on Syntagma Square. In its way, the new treat must have seemed to me just as joyously excessive, just as unnecessarily delightful.
I was not to eat kataïphi again for 42 years, and then in a different country, and under a slightly different name. I had been to Greece again in the interim, most recently in 2018, with a group of university students on a study trip investigating the various ways refugees have been accommodated (or not) in the European Union; and I had even treated myself on that occasion to coffee at the Grande Bretagne, in memory of my visit there with my father, decades earlier – but kataïphi was for some reason no longer among the hotel’s offerings. I know now that I had, all unwitting, passed the pastry by on a visit to Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, where it was camouflaged under its Arab form and name, knafeh. Meanwhile the delicacy has been absent from the gaily tinned assortments, imported in large quantities at Ramadan, I have often bought from my local shawarma stand in Zurich: for its shredded-wheat shell likely makes it too fragile to withstand the journey from Lebanon.
When I next encountered kataïphi, as I say, after a 42-year hiatus, it was in another Balkan country, one even younger, officially, than the modern Greece created by anti-Ottoman consensus in the early 19th century. In 2019 I was invited to a literary festival in Kosovo, by Entela, an Albanian writer colleague from my time with PEN. At the farewell banquet, after three days of poetry recitals, dance and song performances, and award ceremonies, the attendees were served a meal crowned by a slice of what looked uncannily like custard topped with dyed shredded wheat, and which my table companion, Vlora, a participant from the Kosovar town of Prizren, identified by its Albanian name: kadaif.
In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson gives a brief genealogy of the specialty under the lemma “QATA’IF (kadayif, kunafa, knafeh)”, said to be “a family of Near Eastern PASTRIES which can take the form of PANCAKES or a sort of dry-baked vermicelli.” With versions popular in Egypt, Greece, Israel, Syria, and Turkey, among other countries of the Levant, qata’if is a shape-shifting delicacy, appearing as crêpes, breads, and cakes under a variety of names. Common to most iterations is a combination of starch – fried or baked; sweetener – typically honey; and protein – either nuts or a dairy product, occasionally both. In Kosovo, in keeping with its history and geography, kadaif resembles the Turkish and Greek varieties more closely than the Arab. Chief among the features identifying this lineage is its composition using vermicelli, the fine lattice-work of crispy fried dough I had assimilated in 1977 to the shredded wheat I was more familiar with.
Kosovo turns 13 this month, having declared its independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. I remember the day with particular clarity, since the sizeable Kosovar community of Zurich, where I live, staged a noisy triumphal parade through the centre of town to mark the occasion. February 17 also happens to be my father’s birthday; and, in a further coincidence, in 2008 my elder daughter turned 13 herself. She and I were to embark that summer on an ersatz bat mitzvah journey following the custom inaugurated by my father with me, his eldest, in 1977, and honored subsequently with my two siblings. On that third-generation trip in 2008, my daughter and I, for various reasons, did not get any farther than Rome, where the culinary highlights of our stay in Trastevere included cacio e pepe and tripe stew. But I did make sure that our accommodations included an en-suite bathroom: perhaps in reflexive memory of my own qualms at her age, faced with unexpected hygienic appliances and facilities sharers.
Into this fabric of coincidence and memory is now woven my visit to Kosovo in 2019, to Pejë, where Entela and Vlora and I shared poetry and food and toasted each other’s health. We have since exchanged the occasional joking message, sketching out an eventual reunion, one that would prominently feature kadaif. And Vlora has now in fact invited me back to Kosovo, this very month, to another literary festival, this time celebrating the Republic’s 13th birthday. I would be the symbolically 13th poet in attendance, she said in her invitation, and the only international (i.e. non-Albanian) participant. Alas, I have had to decline her invitation, since the festival is to take place in person in Prishtina, and travel, even within Europe, continues to be difficult. But I will recite a poem in my friends’ honor wherever I am.
I wish I could be in Kosovo in person this month, to help celebrate its coming of age, or at least its attainment of what was for me a numinous, liminal birthday. I feel a kinship with the place, due in part to the welcome I received there, to the fact that I live in a city surrounded by its expats, and to the peculiar series of serendipities detailed above. Furthermore, Kosovo, like me, is a child of divorce, albeit of a far more rancorous variety than the relatively civilized separation my parents negotiated. And finally, for me, a half-member of a minority group (Jewish) born in a separatist region (Quebec) of a minor country (Canada) sharing an undefended border with a decidedly larger, louder, more belligerent neighbor (take a guess), there is the sheer perverse appeal of Kosovo’s status: a breakaway, minority-language region (Albanian) containing a further schistic district (North Mitrovica) within the rump republic (Serbia) of a quondam country (Yugoslavia).
Mostly, though, I would just like to read poetry with my friends in Prishtina over a tray of kadaif.