Maqluba is a dish my aunt never taught me to make. “My husband loves eggplant,” she said. She showed me the shiny purple of her hair when the light hit it right. “Everything eggplant.”
I laughed and didn’t think more of it until the evening Ghada flipped a dish of maqluba on the table. “This one is spicy. It has heat.” She was proud to serve a dish with a little kick in response to a comment I’d made a few days before about there being no such thing as spicy in Kayfoun.
The dish wasn’t spicy to my tastebuds, but there was a definite warmth lent by white pepper. The other spices she included were black pepper, cinnamon, salt and allspice. This recipe does not include white pepper. I also add tomatoes, but I’ve kept them optional within the instructions.
It’s a tricky business writing a recipe based on the memory of smell. The thing is, scent is the conveyer of the most powerful memories. As I put this together in my kitchen, I consulted a cookbook but I relied on the communication between my heart and my nose. Happily, the flavors came out right. That isn’t always the case.
If you want to make maqluba, I strongly recommend you wash the dishes as you go. This is a multi-step dish even if it is fairly simple. And if you’ve done it once, you can complete it quickly on the next go. I like to serve this with a tomato salad dressed in olive oil, salt and pepper. You do you.
1 lb beef
1 cup pine nuts
2 cans diced tomatoes (optional)
2 large eggplant
vegetable oil for frying
2 cups white rice
2 tsp allspice
2 tsp cinnamon
3 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
To begin, peel and slice the eggplant in 1/2 inch rounds. Salt it and set it aside in a strainer.
Place rice in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Add tsp salt. Allow to sit.
Brown the beef in a pan with half the spices. Add the pine nuts and saute until golden. If you are using the tomatoes, add them and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.
Heat enough oil in a deep pan or wok to fry your eggplant slices. Have lots of paper towels handy. Eggplant absorbs oil like a sponge. You will want the oil on high heat so that it bubbles around the edge of the eggplant as you slide it in.
Rinse your salted eggplant and pat dry. Add to the oil in batches, frying until golden brown on both sides, then setting on layers of paper towels to drain.
Drain your rice.
In a round dish that is of medium height, pour in half of the meat mixture. Place a layer of fried eggplant on top. Then press eggplant slices around the edge of the pan. Pour in half your rice. Repeat those layers.
Finally, prepare 2.5 cups boiling water with remaining spices UNLESS you are using tomatoes. In that case, reduce water to 1 5/8 cups. Pour over the layers in your pan. It is possible you will need more or less water. The goal is to just cover the top layer of rice. Place on heat and allow to cook covered approximately 15 minutes or until all water is absorbed and rice is tender.
Now, you want to flip this over on a serving dish to retain the mold created by the presoaked rice and eggplant. Place your serving dish over the top of your pan. slide the pan to the edge of your stovetop and counter. Don’t forget your oven mitts for this part! Place on hand underneath the pot and the other against the tray. Invert the dish so the tray is on the counter. Now gently pull up your cooking dish so the entire casserole slides onto the tray keeping it’s shape.
Don’t be afraid to not get this right. The flavor is the most important part, and if it’s a mess, there’s always garnish! Take a look at my most recent effort (above, made in my rice cooker). It isn’t pretty, but it was tasty. And, honestly, if I’d had pine nuts or almonds to toast, I would have garnished the heck out of that dish, set a few sprigs of parsley on top and called it a day.
For more about this versatile dish popular in many countries, click here.