Fayda and Fatima's maftoul:
Palestinian couscous
Rammalah

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Maftoul is an old traditional dish from Palestine, and the surrounding region in general, including Lebanon and Syria. Maftoul is the name of the couscous used in this recipe, which derives from the original North African couscous, but made with bulgur and wheat instead of semolina. It's likely that the dish was brought by migrants who came to Palestine from Morocco, when it was then changed to what is the Palestinian version. Palestinian couscous is also bigger and slightly darker than the North African couscous. It is cooked in a similar way, over a stock with lots of vegetables and sometimes meat. It’s a perfect winter dish, hearty and comforting, and full of warming spices.

These days in Palestine, many people will buy read-made maftoul, and it’s quite rare to find people who still make their own by hand. But the homemade maftoul is so much nicer than the factory one, and the process of rolling these little balls tells many stories of Palestinian food and social customs, where women sit together and prepare the maftoul for hours, sharing stories and memories.

I was lucky to see the maftoul made by hand by Fatima, the aunt of my friend Suha, in Wad Rahhal near Bethlehem (see their story here). Fayda, Suha’s mother, then cooked the maftoul over delicious stock and served it with chicken and lots of vegetables. The recipe below is made with dried Palestinian maftoul, which can often be found in Middle Eastern shops or even online (in Brussels I found fairtrade Palestinian maftoul at La Porte de la Tortue). If you want to learn how to make the maftoul yourself, check out this blog) from Kitchen of Palestine.

Fatima learnt how to make maftoul from her mother, who learnt it from her own mother. Fayda, Suha and I listened to Fatima when she explained how to make the maftoul and we watched when she expertly rolled the bulgur with flour and some water to form small balls. Fayda’s mother didn’t know how to make maftoul so Fayda never learnt how to prepare it from scratch, and nor did Suha. Suha told me that that they buy it in the supermarket, but this fresh handmade version is much better. “Not many people know how to do it, it’s a very old practice”, Suha explained.

To make Palestinian maftoul, you’ll need a couscous pot or a steamer pan (see description below) as you will be steaming the maftoul over the stock and not inside it. It looks like a long list of ingredients but it’s actually quite easy to make, unless you decide to make the maftoul from scratch. I also added chickpeas to Fayda’s original recipe, so you can also easily make the dish vegan, simply by leaving out the chicken. The two versions are included in the steps below.

THE RECIPE

MAFTOUL Palestinian couscous
Difficulty Easy to medium
Preparation time 70 to 85 minutes
Serves 4 to 5 people

You’ll need a couscous pot or a steamer pan (with different levels) as you will be steaming the maftoul. A couscous pot is usually made up of a large saucepan as a base in which you stew the vegetables and meats in stock, and a smaller saucepan that fits neatly into the larger pan with small holes in its base so you can steam the couscous grain over the stock.

INGREDIENTS

Spice mix for the stock

Sauce for the chicken

STEPS

=> Vegan: skip steps 2, 5, 7 and 10 => With chicken: skip step 4

  1. Prepare the spice mix in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Mix all the ingredients for the chicken sauce in a bowl, and set aside (skip if vegan)
  3. Peel, wash and chop the onions, potatoes, carrots and courgettes into chunks of about 1cm. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the large saucepan that forms the base of of the couscous pot then fry the onions for 2 minutes. Add the potatoes and fry for 2 minutes. Then add the carrots, and then finally the courgettes and fry for 1 minute.
  4. Vegan version only (go straight to step 5 for the chicken version): pour 1L of water in the saucepan with the vegetables and bring to boil. Chop the tomatoes, and add them to the saucepan, along with 2 bay leaves. Rinse out the chickpeas and add them to the saucepan with 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 2 teaspoons of spice mix and 3 teaspoons of salt. Cover and bring to boil, then remove the lid and simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes. Then go straight to step 8.
  5. Chicken version only: once step 3 is done, put the oven on at 200 °C. Transfer the vegetables from the saucepan into a bowl and set aside. Using the same saucepan, heat some olive oil and fry the chicken on high heat for about 5 minutes, to get some colour on the meat. Then pour in 1L of water and 2 bay leaves. Cover with the lid and bring to boil. Reduce the heat to medium, leave the lid a bit open and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the saucepan leaving the stock, and place in an oven dish.
  6. Put the vegetables back in the saucepan with the chicken stock. Chop the tomatoes, and add them to the stock. Rinse the chickpeas and add to the saucepan with 2 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 2 teaspoons of spice mix and 3 teaspoons of salt. Cover and bring to boil, then remove the lid and simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes.
  7. While the vegetables cook, coat the chicken with the sauce and put in the oven.
  8. Rinse the maftoul under running water. Place the steamer over the saucepan, put the maftoul in the steamer, and cover ensuring it’s tightly closed. After 10 minutes, stir the maftoul with a fork separating the grains as much as possible, then pour a few spoons of stock over the maftoul and stir. Check there is still enough liquid in the saucepan and add some boiling water if needed. Cover and steam for another 10 minutes, and repeat the same steps with the stock and stirring. Cover again and cook for 10 minutes.
  9. Fry the almonds in some olive oil in a frying pan for 2 minutes, until golden. Set aside.
  10. Take the chicken out of the oven (it needs about 30 minutes in the oven depending on the size of the chicken pieces).
  11. Pour the maftoul into a large serving dish, and top it with the vegetables, a few spoons of the stock and the almonds. Pour the stock into a few small bowls so you can add sauce as you want on your own plate. Put the chicken on the maftoul or on a separate plate.

As with many dishes in Palestine, it’s nice to accompany the maftoul with some plain yogurt and some arabic salad.

Saha!