Maqloubeh is a quintessentially Palestinian creation of fragrant, spiced rice, lamb or chicken, cauliflower, and eggplant that is topped with sauteed pine nuts. Maqloubeh, which literally means “upside-down” is popular across the Eastern Mediterranean and has gained exposure in Israeli cuisine as well. Recently, we were pleasantly surprised by the dish being featured in the New York Times Magazine food section. Arabic food, in all its iterations across the Middle East and North Africa, is one of the strongest markers of our shared culture, and evokes a powerful sense of kinship. Indeed, it is what brought Rasha and I together in this endeavor, and most fortunately, as friends. While the NYT article deservedly put the spotlight on a traditional Palestinian meal and the warmth and humor of those preparing the food, the prevailing perception of Palestinians in this country tends to be one-dimensional and bifurcated: we are either terrorists or an immigrant caricature–funny, irreverent, chaotic, hospitable, and Muslim. While it’s certainly true Palestinians value generosity, hospitality and warmth, the food of Palestine is as diverse and complex as its people, among whom you will find Muslims, Christians (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox), Atheists and probably some closet Buddhists 🙂 Rasha and I both hail from the Christian diaspora community. In fact, Palestinian Christians consider themselves among the first converts to Christianity in the Holy Land, and, along with the ancient Hebrews (with whom we share strong genetic links), were some of the original Semitic peoples living in historical Palestine. Arabic food, and especially Palestinian food, reflects the rich history of all the people who have inhabited the area over millennia. Regardless of how we pray in Palestine, we share the same palates!
There are many versions of maqloubeh, including those with potatoes and carrots. The version below is our favorite because the three main ingredients of lamb, eggplant, and cauliflower creates the most delicious, buttery flavors. The spice blend typically used in maqloubeh is called Baharat and is widely used across the Middle East. You can find it prepackaged at any Arabic or Indian grocer, or you can blend your own spices. The following mix, which is slightly non-traditional because of the addition of ginger, tumeric and red chili powder was Rasha K.’s best kept secret–until now.
Not-So-Secret-Spice-Blend (you may pre-mix these in a cup or bowl) or use a packaged Baharat mix:
1 1/2 – 2 teaspoons Allspice
1 1/2 – 2 teaspoons Nutmeg
1 1/2 – 2 Cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground Cardamom
1 teaspoon Turmeric
1 teaspoon ground Ginger
1 teaspoon ground Coriander
1 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 – 1 teaspoon ground Cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground red chili powder (that’s Ramallah style)
Ingredients for the Maqloubeh:
1 large head of Cauliflower
2 eggplants (aubergines) sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
1 lb lamb stew meat, cut into chunks
1lb Basmati rice, rinsed, soaked, and drained before use
1. Because this recipe does not fry the vegetables, but instead bakes them, you must “sweat” the eggplants to prevent them from becoming soggy in the dish. Sweat the eggplant slices by lightly coating them in salt on both sides. Place them on a tray or wire rack for half an hour. When you start to see beads of water on the eggplant slices, brush off each slice with a towel or paper towel and dry them.
2. While you are sweating the eggplant slices, prepare the lamb in spiced broth. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy stockpot over high heat. Add the lamb meat with 2 teaspoons of the Baharat spice blend, and brown the lamb pieces on all sides. When browned, add 10 cups of water and boil. Skim off any fat or scum that rises to the surface with a spoon, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 1 hour. Take out the lamb pieces with a slotted spoon and set them aside. Place the broth into a container and allow it to cool.
3. Break cauliflower into florets, place them on a tray and coat them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake in the oven at 350F for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned and slightly soft.
4. Remove cauliflower florets from oven, then place eggplant slices, brushed with olive oil, on a baking tray. Bake them at 350F for 20 minutes.
5. Toss the rice in 1 teaspoon of the Baharat spice mix, until coated.
6. Using the original large stockpot, place lamb stew pieces on the bottom, then sprinkle some rice until it covers the bottom of the pot. Place layers of the baked cauliflower and eggplant in alternating layers, then cover with the remaining rice.
7. Pour in the reserved lamb broth until it is about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch above the rice. Either cover with the pot’s lid or use a plate to help the dish cook and retain its mold. Place on the stove top on medium-high heat, bring the pot to a boil for 5-10 minutes, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook at a simmer for 30 min to an hour. When finished, turn off the heat and allow the dish to rest for about 15 minutes.
8. To serve, place either a large plate or serving dish on top of the pot, then using both hands (to prevent accidents), flip the pot over and slowly lift it off the maqloubeh. The dish should hold together. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts or toasted almonds.