Yield: Makes 8 to 10 servings as the main event
Ma’louba is a layered Palestinian rice dish; its name means “upside down” in Arabic. Flipping the pot to reveal its contents is the moment of truth. Will it stand upright, revealing a tower of rice layered with mosaics of vegetables? If not, just remember the first spoonful will send it cascading into the serving tray anyway. No two ma‘loubas are alike. While I was growing up, we had it Gazan-style with eggplant and lamb. In California, Palestinians from the West Bank insist that chicken and carrots make the ultimate ma‘louba. While disputes rage on the best proteins and veggies from village to village, family to family even, devotion to this dish unites all Palestinians, both within Palestine and in the diaspora. I’ve opted for a version of this dish that places vegetables in the star role. You can use just about any vegetable.
I’ve offered a fairly traditional method of preparation, but there are several ways to simplify this dish. It may seem like a lot of frying, but it goes quickly, and it’s the best way to get the caramelized flavor we’re looking for. And if you fry hot enough, your veggies shouldn’t feel or taste oily at all.
Tip: If you prefer not to fry, toss the vegetables in neutral cooking oil, such as sunflower or canola, add a sprinkle of salt, and roast at 425°F until sizzling and golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Reem Assil is the chef and owner of Reem’s California in San Francisco. This recipe was excerpted from her book, Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Alanna Hale
- 1½ cups basmati rice
- 1 large globe eggplant, sliced into ¼-inch rounds (about 1 pound)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 cups neutral oil, such as sunflower or canola
- ½ cup cornstarch
- 1 russet potato with skin, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
- 2 large carrots, cut on the bias into ¼-inch rounds (about 2 cups)
- 1 head cauliflower, broken into 1½-inch florets (about 4 cups)
- 2 red bell peppers or 3 or 4 small mixed bell peppers, sliced into ¼-inch strips
- 4 cups water or vegetable stock, plus more as needed
- 2 tablespoons Seven-Spice Mix (page 26)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper, plus more as needed
- Neutral oil, such as sunflower or canola, for greasing
- 2 Roma tomatoes, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt or Yogurt, Mint, and Cucumber Salad (page 218) for serving
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Rinse the rice and soak for 30 minutes. Drain well.
Meanwhile, sprinkle the eggplant with 1 tablespoon of the salt and set aside for 5 minutes to release some of its water (and some bitterness along with it).
Line two sheet trays with paper towels.
Pour the oil into a large pan, until the oil is deep enough to immerse a layer of the vegetables, about 2 inches, and warm over medium-high heat.The oil is the right temperature if the vegetables sizzle and swim around immediately and slowly brown while cooking. If using an instant-read thermometer, heat the oil to 350°F.
Place the cornstarch in a shallow bowl. Pat the rounds of eggplant dry with a paper towel, coat both sides in cornstarch, and gently lower them into the oil, filling a single layer. Fry in batches until golden, about a minute on each side. Set the rounds on the prepared sheet trays to drain.
Fry the potato, a single layer at a time, until brown. The potato rounds should be lightly golden and about halfway cooked; set aside to drain.
Fry the carrots, a single layer at a time, until the surface bubbles and browns slightly. Set aside to drain.
Fry the cauliflower, a single layer at a time, until the florets are crispy and brown. Set aside to drain.
Fry the bell peppers, a single layer at a time, until they curl and brown. Set aside to drain. The carrots, cauliflower and bell peppers need to take on a browned color but stay al dente. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon salt to season the vegetables after they’re fried.
To prepare the cooking liquid: Add the water to a small pot and bring to a simmer. Add the spice mix, turmeric, salt and black pepper and maintain a simmer.
When ready to assemble, brush the bottom and sides of a large straight-sided pot (a 3-quart Dutch oven works great) with oil. In concentric circles, layer half the eggplant, carrots, potato, tomatoes, bell peppers and cauliflower, in that order. Sprinkle half of the rice on the first vegetable layer. Repeat the layering with the second round of vegetables and sprinkle the remaining rice on top. Scatter the garlic across the top.
Gently pour in the spiced stock, taking care not to disturb the vegetables and rice; you want to keep the layers intact. Add more water if necessary to ensure the rice is at least ½ inch below the water line. Over medium heat, return the pot to a simmer, taking care not to reach a vigorous boil, which might displace the layering. Turn down the heat to low, place a heavy plate smaller than the pot as a weight on top to keep the layered rice tower compact, and cover with a tightly fitted lid. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes or until the rice is fully cooked.
Turn off the heat and let the pot rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove the lid and plate and cover the pot with a large flat-bottomed platter.
Using oven mitts, sandwich the pot with one hand on the platter and the other beneath the bottom and quickly flip the pot upside down so it rests on the platter.
Now comes a little luck and superstition: thump the bottom of the pot with the base of your palm or a wooden spoon and give the rice a few minutes to slide down to the platter. Carefully jimmy the pot directly upward and, if all goes well, the rice and vegetables will retain the shape of the pot to form a layered tower.
Sprinkle with the almonds and parsley. Serve warm with a side of plain yogurt or with the yogurt- cucumber salad.