Feast Food, Maftool, Palestinian Couscous from Olives, Lemons and Za'atar

Rawia Bishara in her Maftool recipe from  Olives, Lemons & Za'atar (Kyle Books, February 2014) reminisces on her parents making the pearly couscous by hand at home when she was growing up.

The Romance of Maftool

My father was a rather chivalrous man, particularly when it came to my mother. His gestures were not necessarily showy or grand, but they were nothing if not charming. One of my favorite memories of my parents is tied to the ritual of making maftool, a pasta that is often incorrectly
referred to as Israeli couscous here in America. Given how much patience and diligence is required to make the grains by hand, it is clear proof to me just how important food was and remains to our culture.
In our Nazareth home, my mother started making this pearly pasta early in the morning. The first step was roasting and grinding her own spices. The aroma of caraway, anise and cumin floated in the air. She filled a huge stockpot with either lamb bones or whole chickens, vegetables, the spices and water. While the water came to a boil, my mother shaped the pasta. She stood while rolling a bit of wheat flour with drips of water in the palms of her hands over a sieve, continuously sprinkling flour and water in her palm until the granules were the size of BB pellets. She would then coat the pasta with clarified butter to prevent the grains from sticking together while they steamed in a colander set in the pot of boiling stock. The fragrant stock perfumed the maftool before the two
were combined in a bowl. Layering flavors this way was the key to my mother’s memorable cooking. She insisted on spicing and perfuming every component of a dish.
Maftool is made with what seems like an absurd amount of pearl onions. Peeling them is one of the most time-consuming steps in making the dish. For my parents, though, it was the most charmed. Because he hated to see her cry, my father always stepped in to tackle the mountain of onions on the kitchen counter. This may not seem especially gallant these days, but back then, men simply did not carry their weight in the kitchen. Watching my dad peel all those onions made me swoon. As a little girl, it just seemed so romantic! The most endearing part of the process was not that my father saved my mom the burning eyes and endless tears, but that he’d close the kitchen door while he was preparing all of those onions because he didn’t like anyone seeing him cry.
“Watching my dad peel all those onions made me swoon. As a little girl, it just seemed so romantic!”

Palestinian Couscous with Chicken, Chickpeas and Pearl Onions, MAFTOOL

It used to be that the whole family gathered to make homemade Maftool. These days, almost no one makes it by hand, which is not surprising, since the process is very involved. Maftool is truly a one-dish meal—there are never pickles, sauces or salads served with it because the chicken, chickpeas and onions are like side dishes themselves. I prefer fresh pearl onions, but if you need to speed things up, use the frozen variety.


6 teaspoons ground caraway seeds
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon sea salt or to taste
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 chicken (21/2 to 3 pounds), cut into 4 or 8 pieces
10 tablespoons olive oil or 4 tablespoons ghee
2 pounds fresh pearl onions, peeled, or frozen pearl onions
4 yellow onions, chopped
1 pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and boiled (see page 21) or 2 (15-ounce) cans, drained and rinsed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 pounds maftool (see opposite) or Egyptian rice

P.140 Maftool

In a small bowl, combine the caraway, allspice, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon. Rub half of the spice mixture all over the chicken. Set aside the other half.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 6 tablespoons of the oil or all of the ghee over medium heat. Slip the chicken pieces into the pan, skin-side down, and sear, leaving them untouched for 6 to 8 minutes, until golden brown. Turn over and sear the other sides, 5 minutes more. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside. Add the pearl and yellow onions and saute until the onions begin to take on color, 5 to 7 minutes. Return the chicken to the pot, pour in the chickpeas and 3 quarts water, raise the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and, using a spoon, skim o% the foam from the top, trying not to skim o% any spices along with it. Cover and simmer until the chicken is about to fall o% the bone, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir in the lemon juice and set
the pot aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet with a lid, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the rice, stir to coat and saute until the grains are snowy white.

Stir in the reserved spice mixture and until fragrant. Pour in 6 cups of the chicken broth from the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the rice is soft, adding more broth as needed, 15 to 20 minutes.

To serve, spoon the rice onto a large, rimmed serving platter and arrange the chicken, chickpeas and onions around it.

(* Recipe reproduced from 'Olives, Lemons & Za'atar' by Rawia Bishara -Kyle Books, February 2014- Photography by Peter Cassidy, all rights reserved...)

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