Even at the risk of sounding like the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I will start by explaining the etymology of the world maqlubeh or maqlubah (both spellings are accurate and simply indicate different Arab accents). Its root is the Arabic verb meaning “to flip” and the word itself just means “flipped over.” It’s an apt description given that in order to serve this dish, you top the pot in which it was cooked with a large serving platter, then flip it and lift to reveal a cake-shaped dish of rice, vegetables, and meats.
Common across Palestine and widely recognized as the national dish, there are as many variations of “maqlubeh” as there are Palestinian families. Traditionally, it is made by boiling either lamb or chicken, frying one or more vegetables (historically just eggplants), then layering the meat, rice, and vegetables in a stew pot and cooking it with some stock.
Over the years, it has evolved to include countless variations. There are seasonal ones, such as maqlubeh made with cauliflower in the winter or fava beans in the spring, and personal adaptations that might reflect, for example, a family’s preference for putting cauliflower, eggplant, and carrots together in the same pot. Still others might add chickpeas, or garlic and onions, or even tomatoes to line the pot. But eggplant remains the gold standard, and, if the following old story is to be believed, was the vegetable used when maqlubeh first received its descriptive name.
Towards the end of the twelfth century, Salah ad-Din, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, led a military campaign against the Crusaders in the Levant in which he defeated a massive army in the Battle of Hattin and captured back the city of Jerusalem. Legend has it that the local Jerusalem population, elated with this victory, served Salah ad-Din and his men a generous feast. One of the main dishes was “bathinjaniyeh” (bathinjan means eggplant in Arabic), a dish of rice and eggplants ceremoniously flipped over on a serving platter in front of guests as a sign of hospitality and respect. Delighted with its flavor, Salah ad-Din is said to have later asked, “What is the name of this flipped over (maqlubeh) dish?” From that point onwards, the name of bathinjaniyeh became maqlubeh, and remains it today.
How much of this history is true and how much is embellished is hard to ascertain, but eggplant dishes had by that time gained favor and become some of the most popular, with recipes widely available in medieval Arabic cookbooks. Rice, however, was much less popular in the Levant during that era because it did not grow natively (it required a substantial amount of water, difficult in a drier climate). Even in later centuries, rice continued to be perceived as a food reserved for the wealthy and only in recent years has it become a staple. So it is entirely possible that the grain of choice for maqlubeh was historically the more readily available wheat in either bulgur or freekeh form.
Today, however, maqlubeh is a rice dish, and one of the most popular at that, served both on special occasions and on an almost weekly basis for many Palestinian families. It’s an entire meal in one pot that can feed a crowd, so it is often the perfect choice for weekend gatherings when large extended families tend to get together.
Even though there are countless variations, there are a few elements common across them all which ensure the best flavor and texture.
First is the broth. The flavor of the dish will largely come down to the flavor of the broth used, so homemade is the way to go so that you can control the many layers of flavors and seasonings.
Then comes the rice. The texture is meant to be soft, but not mushy or sticky. Once the dish is flipped out, a gentle shake of the serving platter back and forth should see the grains cascade down to fill the platter in a mound of tender individual grains that are easy to tell apart. This in part comes down to the variety of rice used. You want a long-grain rice that is prized for its ability to produce rice with a fluffy texture, so more glutinous and sticky varieties like medium-grain rice are out. Jasmine is the most popular choice, with Calrose a close second. While basmati is a perfectly suitable choice that many opt for because of its long individual grains, the texture is a little on the dry side and the flavor feels less cohesive.
Rinsing and soaking the rice is equally essential to avoid sticky or mushy rice. Rinsing the rice until the water runs clear removes surface starches that can gum up the results, while soaking it hydrates the starch more evenly, setting it up for more uniform, tender results once cooked.
The choice of meat is discretionary, although both chicken and lamb are common. Bone-in pieces are traditional, because they are used to first make the broth, and yield the most flavor. But if you already have a good homemade broth on hand, it is entirely possible to use boneless cuts of meat. If it is chicken breast, simply brown it in olive oil with spices until almost cooked through before layering the dish; you don’t want to simmer the lean, white meat too long, or it’ll end up dry and chalky in the finished dish. If it is stewing cuts of lamb (or beef), then cook them in the broth until tender before proceeding with the dish; the longer cooking on these stewing cuts allows for tough, collagenous connective tissue to break down into supple gelatin, ensuring tender results.
It is in the choice of vegetables where the most opportunity for variation exists, though as mentioned, eggplant is the most typical. In most cases, the vegetables need to be pre-cooked before being layered into the maqlubeh, but the method of cooking will depend on the vegetable. Cauliflower and eggplant are usually deep- or shallow-fried first, allowing for thorough browning and tenderizing, and a softer, silkier texture. It’s not uncommon today, however, to broil these vegetables in order to speed preparation and reduce the amount of oil needed; high-heat roasting of a vegetable like cauliflower could also work. Other common vegetable choices like favas, carrots, or a mix, are usually sautéed in olive oil until just tender.
The final piece of the puzzle is the assembly. The meat goes into the pot first, followed by a portion of soaked and drained rice that’s been seasoned with spices. The vegetables are then layered in and topped with the remaining rice. If it is a substantially large meal, one can do more layers of rice and vegetables. A heatproof plate, slightly smaller than the pot’s circumference, is usually inverted on top to weigh it all down and ensure the layers hold their shape during cooking, and then the broth is poured in. Once the rice is cooked, it’s set aside to steam for 15 to 20 minutes with a tea towel or paper towels inserted under the lid, which absorbs moisture that would otherwise condense on the bottom of the lid and drip back down onto the rice, turning it damp and mushy in spots.
The real treat is the act of flipping it over. There is always this palpable tension in the air, “Will it come out in one piece? What will it look like?” Nonstick pots definitely help reduce the risk of sticking, but another trick if you don’t have a nonstick pot is to line the bottom of the pot with a round sheet of parchment paper. While this will not give you a nicely sizzling, brown bottom, it will ensure easy release.
When it comes time to serve, fried slivered almonds add a welcome crunch to the dish, while yogurt and chopped Palestinian salad make the perfect accompaniments. But even on its own with a spoon, this dish is a complete meal. While I will always think of maqlubeh as a celebratory or family meal that can carry its own weight, it’s also the perfect side dish for roasted or grilled meats.
For the Broth: In a heavy-bottomed stock pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chicken, skin side down, and sear until the chicken is golden-brown all over and releases easily from the pot, about 5 minutes per side.
Add the allspice, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, tomato paste, and turmeric and stir to coat the chicken. Add the whole onion along with 10 1/2 cups water and the salt, and bring to a boil. Let boil for 5 minutes, skimming any scum that rises to the surface, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the chicken is cooked through but not falling apart, about 1 hour. Using tongs, transfer chicken to a plate or platter and set aside.
Allow broth to cool slightly, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer set through a large heatproof bowl. Discard solids and set broth aside.
Meanwhile, for the Maqlubeh: While the broth is simmering, set rice in a large mixing bowl and wash in several changes of cold water, swishing well with your hand each time, until the water is clear. Cover rice with fresh cold water and let soak for 25 minutes.
Fill a Dutch oven, wok, or large sauté pan, with about 1 inch of vegetable oil. Heat oil over high heat to 375°F (190°C). Working in batches to avoid crowding the oil, fry eggplant slices in a single layer, turning once halfway through, until golden-brown on both sides, about 5 minutes. Carefully transfer fried eggplant to a paper towel–lined platter or baking sheet. Once all the eggplant has been fried, repeat with cauliflower, frying florets until golden brown all over.
Drain rice well, return to mixing bowl, then stir in the olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, and salt until thoroughly combined.
To assemble the maqlubeh, grease the interior of a large nonstick pot (approximately 10-inches wide and 5-inches high) with ghee; if you do not have a nonstick pot, then line the bottom of a Dutch oven or stainless steel pot with a round piece of parchment paper and then grease with ghee.
Arrange the cooked chicken, skin side down, in the pot. Spread one third of the rice on top in as even a layer as possible. Layer the fried eggplant and cauliflower on top as evenly as possible; you can arrange them in two separate stacked layers, as a single layer split down the middle with cauliflower on one side and eggplant on the other, or freely mixed together. Top with the remaining rice, spreading it in an even layer; you should not see the vegetables through the rice, or, at most, see only some edges popping through.
Set an inverted heatproof plate, slightly smaller than the circumference of the pot, over the rice. This weighs down the maqlubeh, helping it retain its distinctive layers.
Ladle broth on top until it reaches approximately 3/4 inch (2cm) above the rice and other ingredients. Cover, set on medium heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a strong simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to a very gentle simmer and cook until all the liquid has been absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove from heat.
Using tongs and an oven mitt or kitchen towel, carefully remove the inverted plate. Set a well-fitting lid on the pot, sandwiching a clean tea towel or paper towels between the pot and the lid. Set aside to steam for 15 to 20 minutes. For crispier rice, see note at end.
For the Almonds: In a small skillet, pour in enough olive oil to thinly coat the bottom (about 1 to 2 tablespoons). Add the almonds and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, until almonds are a light golden color, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Alternatively, place the almonds on a small sheet pan and toast in a 350°F (175°C) oven until golden, about 5 minutes.
To Serve: Remove the lid and place a large, inverted serving platter on top of the pot. Using both hands, quickly but carefully flip the pot over. Slowly lift the pot to reveal the dish.
Give the serving platter a gentle shake back and forth to help disperse the rice grains. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve alongside Palestinian salad and fresh yogurt.
If you do not have all the whole spices for the broth, substitute with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground allspice, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves. Or, in a pinch, with 1 tablespoon of ground Lebanese 7 Spice.
If you do not have jasmine rice, you can use Calrose rice or another long grain rice such as Basmati.
If you prefer your rice and chicken crispier, set the pot on the lowest heat for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour right after covering it with the lid and tea towel in Step 11. This will keep the dish warm and allow the rice and chicken skin to crisp up more.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Once layered, the pot can be kept in the refrigerator for up to one day before cooking. Cooked leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat with a few splashes of chicken broth thoroughly before serving.
Reem Kassis July 21, 2022 at 10:52PM
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