Rediscovering Palestinian Cuisine

Maftoul: Palestinian pearl “couscous”

Maftoul: Palestinian pearl “couscous”

Winter is coming, and I am not happy about this. It’s October and I’m already bracing myself. My Mediterranean genes did not evolve to withstand cold weather, okay? There is a reason I lived in California for a decade. Regardless, here I am, settled in Boston, and coming to terms with dressing and eating seasonally, which means I am forced to wear socks (glass half empty) but I also get to cook warm, savoury comfort food (glass totally full).

There is a classic Palestinian dish called maftoul: bone-in chicken cooked in a hearty broth of onions, chickpeas, perfumed with spices such as cumin and cardamom, and served over the large-grain Palestinian couscous of the same name. Perfect for chilly weather and providing the energy to tackle another day. As I write this, it strikes me that part of the extraordinary resilience of our people is found in our cuisine. It is grounded in simple traditions that, like its people, are stalwart century to century, with unpretentious ingredients, and flavors that are as complex and nuanced as the culture itself.

Today I won’t be providing the recipe for maftoul the dish, but rather maftoul the couscous. Actually, calling it couscous is a bit of a misnomer. Couscous is a Maghrebi (North African) dish made of durum and semolina rolled into tiny grains. Maftoul, on the other hand, is distinctly Palestinian and has a core of bulgur wheat, which is then rolled in wheat flour to make golden beads that are inherently more nutritious and less processed than traditional couscous or pastas. Maftoul is larger and sturdier than couscous and won’t become mushy, making it wonderful to be dressed in salads, perfect for absorbing the flavors of a stock (as in the eponymous maftoul), or served on the side of chicken or fish.

These days, it is extremely rare for maftoul to be made by hand, since it’s readily available packaged, and made by Palestinian women in cooperatives. However, the taste of fresh maftoul is leaps and bounds better. Rolling maftoul was a practice that was already dwindling by my mother’s era. In fact, her aunt Feride (were she alive she would be well into her 90s) taught my mother how to make maftoul by hand only once, back in the 1970s. And my mother, who is an experienced cook, has never made it again. I assume one of the reasons for this is the time it requires. Grandmothers used to sit crafting maftoul, grape leaves, and other delicacies for hours, chatting and sharing their lives. They were the living memory of our cuisine.

Soaked bulgur waiting to be rolled in flour

Luckily (?), I have a somewhat obsessive nature. Which means when I get the idea I’m going to hand roll maftoul (something I’ve never done), well, nothing will stop me from rolling that maftoul. Add to that a lot of blind confidence, and you often have a disaster waiting to happen in my kitchen. Except that this time *phew* the spirits of my female forebears must have been on my side, because the maftoul turned out beautiful–if not slightly uneven in size.

**To do this properly, you should find a large pan with a rim (sanieh), similar to what you might bake kofta in. You’ll also need a colander for steaming and par-boiling the maftoul; if that’s not available, a thin kitchen towel works just fine. Before you begin, I suggest watching this Palestinian woman roll some maftoul like the boss she is:

Let’s get to it:


1 cup fine bulgur, soaked for 20-30 minutes in 3 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups all purpose flour

**you may use more flour if you would like the maftoul larger


  1. Place 1 cup soaked bulgur in a strainer, if needed. You can save the excess water–it will come in handy as you’re rolling.
  2. Mix both flours and the salt together. Set aside in a bowl.
  3. Spread the bulgur evenly on the bottom of a rimmed pan.
    Raw, soaked bulgur

    4. Sweep the bulgur over to one side of the pan. Sprinkle about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the flour mixture into the pan, and extra water if needed.

    5. Using a circular motion, and moving finger tips in opposite directions, begin swirling the bulgur in the flour until the bulgur is coated.
    6. Repeat the steps of adding flour and water, then swirling, until the maftoul is the size you desire. Usually about 1/8 inch in diameter.

    7. The final step here is to parboil the maftoul, which is necessary even if you will use it immediately. To do this, place either in an oiled colander, or wrap in a kitchen towel inside the colander, then put the colander atop a pot of boiling water. I like to infuse my maftoul, so in the center of the grains, I put a spice bouquet of cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, bay leaves, and chopped onions wrapped in cheesecloth. Cover with a lid to seal, and steam for 5 minutes.
    8. The maftoul will turn a golden color and become plump.
    9. Either use immediately, keep in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months.

Try not to worry if your maftoul pearls are not evenly sized. This takes practice, even for an obsessive perfectionist 🙂 They are sure to be delicious.

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