I have very fond memories growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attending huge palestinian wedding celebrations. There was always a dish there, made in a pot so big, my entire family could sit in it. It was Maqlooba, which literally means “flipped over” in Arabic. There would be juicy bits of lamb (which I always picked out), tasty cauliflower, and deliciously fried eggplants. I vividly remember the women would flip the massive pot over and everything seemed to come out seamlessly. The dish shined with a beautiful golden crispy hue from the toasted bits of rice and veggies that reached the bottom of the pot but were now featured on the top.
I realized that maqlooba has a long history, and in a 13th Century Baghdad cookbook, there is an entire chapter called “fried, marinated, and turned.” This is exactly the key to making a good maqlooba – fry the veggies, marinate the meat, then turn it all over when finished. However, this 13th-century recipe leaves out about 100 steps that are involved in making a traditional maqlooba. Generally speaking, I have made and tried both Iraqi and Palestinian versions of this. The Palestinian one tastes more creamy, as a yogurt sauce is served with it. However, I always find the Iraqi one to be much heavier, as there is not only a lot of fried cauliflower and eggplant, but also potatoes in there too. Both are extremely delicious, especially during Ramadan or some other home feast where you have a couch nearby for your sure-to-be comatose state afterwards.
Over the course of my kitchen experiments with maqlooba, I never seemed to perfect that perfect flip of the pot where the eggplant was perched atop a mound of rice. It always seemed that the meat got stuck to the bottom, the tomatoes turned to mush with the skin separating and leaving little tomato skins dotting the rice, or that the entire flipped pot would sink into more of a flat casserole type of dish. However, I am proud to say, that not only have I perfected the flip, but I make a healthier version of maqlooba that my kids enjoy. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than seeing my children eat (semi-) traditional Middle Eastern meals!
In trying to keep things healthy, I made a few substitutions that I hope wouldn’t offend maqlooba lovers of the world. I use chicken breast to keep it lean, I roast the eggplant, and I don’t add tomatoes. I actually don’t even know if the tomatoes are traditional, now that I think about it. Anyway, this recipe now takes me an hour, start to finish. This recipe used to take me nearly 2 hours, when I used to use bone-in chicken, the pressure cooker, frying eggplant, and lord knows what else took me so long. This recipe is not only easier and healthier, but just as tasty!
Upside Down Chicken and Rice (Maqlooba)
Prep Time: 45 – 60 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Keywords: rice eggplant cauliflower chicken
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 1 lb of organic chicken breast or tenders
- 1 eggplant
- 1/2 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1.2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp allspice
- 3 cups basmati rice
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Olive Oil
- 1 cup greek yogurt (optional)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp curry powder (I prefer Trader Joe’s)
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/4 tsp cardamom powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts and almonds
1. In a large bowl, cut the chicken breast into cubes. Combine the chicken with all of the marinade ingredients. Set aside to marinate for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Cut the eggplant into round slices. Toss the eggplant with 1 to 2 tbsp of olive oil and a good pinch or two of course salt. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. The eggplant should be soft.
3. Take half of the head of cauliflower and cut into florets. In a large saucepan, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil. Quickly pan fry the cauliflower florets. Set aside.
4. In a large pot, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil. Brown the diced onion and garlic. As the onions become translucent, add the cumin seeds and 1/2 tsp of allspice. Lightly toast the spices. Add the chicken.
5. While the chicken browns, in a mixing bowl, wash and drain the basmati rice. This removes the extra starch that makes rice sticky. Add 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp allspice, and 1/2 tsp of turmeric to the rice. Mix well.
6. The chicken should be browned and essentially thoroughly cooked. Now add the eggplant slices along the side of the pot (be careful, it’s hot!) Add the cauliflower florets on top of the chicken pieces. Then add the rice.
7. Add three cups of chicken broth or water to the pot – just enough liquid to cover the rice. Add a pinch of salt. Once the liquid comes to a rapid simmer, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover and cook for 30-45 minutes or until rice is completely cooked.
8. Find a large platter that is wider than your pot. Flip over the pot and tap the bottom of the pot to loosen the dish. It should fall out easily. Serve with greek yogurt and top with toasted pine nuts and almonds. Enjoy!!