I have worked in humanitarian aid and development in the Middle East for over 10 years. All humanitarians love being posted in the Middle East because they love the delicious food, so much so that in the sector it has a name: The Arab Inches. A reference to the amount of weight that you put on when you live and work there. This enjoyment of food (and weight gain!) is due to delicious dishes like this: Perfect, delicious and honestly just impressive. If you are cooking for friends I promise they will squeal as is comes to the table and will eat it all up. Maqlooba means upside down in Arabic because of how we turn the pot upside down on the dish to reveal what can best be described as a rice cake. While traditional maqlooba relied on lots of deep friend vegetables, you can also roast them in the oven with some olive oil which is healthier.
I have previously shared my very simple one-pot midweek maqlooba which you serve right out of the saucepan. This version is more involved so you may want to save this for a weekend treat.
Aubergines and cauliflower are essential, and you can see below that I often also add tomatoes, onions and carrots (it’s a great way to get vegetables into kids). my eldest son Otis calls this ‘Magical maqlooba’ because of all the jewels be scatter on the top of it to serve.
You want to choose a saucepan to make this in that is large but that does not have a long handle (this will hinder you turning it upside down easily). Its best to use a saucepan that had two handles on either side too.
1 large Cauliflower
4 plump on-vine tomatoes
for the rice
1.5 cups of basmati rice
1 litre of water
1 onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp of tomato puree
4 cardamon pods
2 bay leaves
2 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
Extra virgin olive oil
for the jewels
handful of almonds, toased in olive oil
handful of pine nuts, toasted in olive oil
handful of fresh pomegranate
handful of fresh mint and parsley
preheat the oven to 190c
prepare the vegetables by peeling carrots and chopping in half or leaving whole if they are smaller. Peel the onion and cut into thick discs. Cut the aubergine and tomatoes into thick discs. Separate the cauliflower into florets.
Coat the aubergines, cauliflower and carrots in olive oil and salt and put on the baking sheet and into the oven for 25 minutes until golden and singed but still holding their full form. If you prefer- for a treat- or because you are a firm traditionalist you can deep fry these vegetables instead.
Put a glug of olive oil onto the bottom of a pretty large saucepan and arrange the onions on the bottom flowed by a layer of the tomato discs. Once the rest of the vegetables comes out of the oven add a layer of aubergines, then cauliflower and then carrots. Then set this pot aside and start with the rice.
Prepare the rice in a separate saucepan before adding to the main pot with the roasted/ fried vegetables in.
Soak the rice in water for 10 minutes and then rinse of a few times until the run-off is relatively clear.
Sautee the garlic and onion in olive oil on a light heat. Add all the spices and mix in for a minute or two and then add the rice to coat in the oily spices and toast for a minute. Then add the water and tomato puree and salt. You want to cook the rice until it is slightly expanded and about 1/3 cooked. When you look at the rice it will still have darker patches on it and when you squeeze it between thumb and finger it will have a bit of resistance and be hard at its centre. This will take about 10-15 minutes.
Once the rice is ready, take a slotted spoon and ladle the rice/ onion out of the tomato liquid and pack it into the other saucepan on top roasted vegetable. Make sure all the rice is in and press it down with the back of the spoon. Add 500ml of the tomato liquid (with me this is basically normally all the rest of the liquid. You may need to use the handle of a wooden spoon to press holes into the rice to allow the liquid to drain down into the rice/ vegetables.
Put this saucepan onto a low/ medium heat on the hob for about 30-40 minutes. You want the rice to look moist but not be very wet. If you feel like the liquid is more for some reason but you are sure things have cooked well you can drain off some of the liquid and leave on the heat a bit longer then remove.
You then turn the saucepan onto a large flat serving plate.
Scatter over the almonds, pine nuts, parsley, mint and pomegranate.
Serve with Salata Arabia and yoghurt.