chicken, rice & cauliflower pot
On a hot July afternoon, Jamila cooked a beautiful chicken and cauliflower maqluba for us. Maqluba (or maqlouba, makluba) is Palestine’s national dish. Most families will gather over a maqluba about once a week. While there are different versions of it, the basic principle is in its name - ‘maqluba’ means upside down. The dish is cooked in one pot, with layers of rice, vegetables and chicken or meat (or without), and then flipped over once ready. It can be made with cauliflower, aubergines or other vegetables like tomatoes or mushrooms. It might look like a long process but it's easy to make, and well worth the time.
Jamila and her husband Shaban are two of the six million Palestinian refugees from 1948. They fled their village of Zakkariyya during the war that followed the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. They have since been living as refugees in the West Bank. Jamila is a proud mother of 7 children and a grand-mother to many grandchildren. Over the years she has taught most of her daughters and step-daughters to cook. She says many of them have now become better cooks than her. "The students become the masters", she told me laughing. But if her maqluba is anything to go by, she certainly still has the touch.
Jamila and Shaban live in a small house in Dheisheh, Bethlehem’s largest refugee camp. Unlike most people in Dheisheh, they have a spacious outdoor space where flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables all blossom under the Palestinian sun. The courtyard outside their front door is shaded by beautiful grape vines. Their home feels like a peaceful haven in an otherwise messy place. Like most refugee camps in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Dheisheh is crowded, with around 15,000 people living on 1 to 1.5 square kilometer of land. Shaban also spends a lot of time on a small piece of land they own about 10 minutes’ drive from the camp. There, he tends to his vegetable plot and watches the sun rise and set over the Bethlehem valleys. "I feel more free here, not like Dheisheh. It reminds me of Zakariyya", Shaban told me.
"To this day we still hope to go back to Zakariyya but the hope is very small. For us the old ones, we cannot forget."
Palestinian refugees feel terribly nostalgic of the land and homes they lost in the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic, referring to the expulsion and fleeing of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes when the State of Israel was created). Their forced displacement didn’t just turn their lives upside down but had a lasting impact on people’s food habits. Many families went from living in rural villages to surviving in crowded refugee camps where they couldn't grow vegetables or pick fruits and green leaves like they used to. Even though she was only 11 years old when she fled to the West Bank, Jamila remembers well how they lived back then. "We were self-sufficient, the only thing we had to buy was rice," she told me. "Life was more natural back then, less industrialised."
Jamila is happy she stayed in Palestine and didn't go to Jordan or further away, like so many Palestinians did (today there are between 6 to 7 million Palestinians in the diaspora). She is attached to the land, and she still has some hope. "I am always praying for my children, for bad people to be far away from us, for my children and grandchildren to be successful and live happy lives. To this day we still hope to go back to Zakariyya but the hope is very small. For us the old ones, we cannot forget."
Useful links: find out more about Palestine's refugees on the UNRWA website or with this useful FAQ by the Badil Resource Center.
The first image is of Jamila and Shaban's courtyard. The others show Dheisheh refugee camp
||Layered chicken, rice and cauliflower one-pot dish
||about 2 hours
||6 to 8 people
- 1.5 teaspoon (tsp) of ground turmeric
- 1 tsp of ground ginger
- 1 tsp of ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp of ground allspice
- 1 tsp of ground cumin
- 1 tsp of ground coriander
- ½ tsp of cardamom
- ½ tsp of ground cloves
- ½ tsp of black pepper
- 1 medium sized onion
- Vegetable oil (corn or sunflower)
- 1 kg of chicken (1 whole chicken cut up in pieces or 6 to 8 large pieces on the bone - legs, thighs and/or breasts)
- 2.5 tsp of salt
- 3 to 4 bay leaves
- 1 cauliflower
- 2 large carrots
- 1 large potato
- 450 gr of rice (medium grain rice is best but long grain is fine too)
- Optional: a handful of pine nuts and some chopped parsley
- for serving: yogurt, cucumbers and tomatoes
- First mix all the ground spices (bar the salt) in a bowl and set aside.
- The next step is to prepare the chicken broth. Roughly chop the onion, heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large saucepan or casserole dish and fry the onion on medium heat for about 5 minutes. If you went for a whole chicken, cut it up into pieces. You can remove the skin off the chicken prior to frying it if you prefer. Add the chicken to the saucepan and fry evenly on each side for about 5 minutes. When the chicken has some colour, pour about 1.3 litre of water in the pan, ensuring the chicken is completely covered. Throw in 3 to 4 bay leaves, 1 heaped teaspoon of salt and 1 heaped tablespoon of the spice mix, bring to boil then cover with the lid and let it simmer on medium heat for 45 minutes. As it cooks, some foam might form at the surface of the water. It’s best to remove this with a spoon so keep checking as it boils.
- While the chicken is cooking, get the vegetables ready. Peel the carrots and the potato and cut into slices of about 1cm. Chop the cauliflower into big chunks and wash. In a frying pan, heat a generous quantity of vegetable oil - about 0.5cm to 1cm deep. Fry all the vegetables in small batches until golden brown on each side. Use paper towel to soak up the oil.
- Thoroughly rinse the rice under running water to remove the starch. Some types of rice might need to soak in water in advance so check the instructions on the pack.
- Once your chicken is cooked, take the pieces out of the broth and put aside. Pour the broth through a sieve into a separate bowl so you keep only the liquid, which you’ll use to cook the maqluba.
- You can now assemble the maqluba. In the same saucepan used to make the broth, lay down the chicken, then the vegetables and finally spread the rice over the vegetables to make three even layers. Sprinkle some more of the spice mix over the rice (a small tablespoon) plus 1.5 heaped teaspoon of salt. Now pour the broth in the pan until it reaches the same level as the rice or 0.5 cm above it (you'll need about 700/800ml of broth). Place a small plate on the rice - this will keep it all in place as it cooks. Don’t mix the ingredients. Bring to boil, then cover and let it simmer on medium heat for about 20 minutes or until there is absolutely no liquid left. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn - once there is no water left, take it off the heat and leave to rest for 10/15 minutes with the lid on.
- The final step is to flip the dish upside down. Open the pan and remove the small plate. Put a large tray or plate over the pan, hold it tight and flip it over so the maqluba transfers to the tray or plate. Your maqluba is ready!
- Note that many people tend to sprinkle a handful of pinenuts (which you can quickly roast in a small frying pan) and parsley over the maqluba when it's ready.
Jamila served her maqluba with yogurt, a cucumber and tomato salad and pickled olives and gherkins.