Maftoul

Maftoul is a traditional Palestinian food, the name referring to both the grain product itself, as well as the dish prepared using it. The word maftoul means “twisted,” “knotted,” or “twirled.” How did maftoul get its name? Traditional Palestinian maftoul is made by using bulgur/burghul or a coarse semolina as a base. These wheat products are put into a container, and a little bit of wheat flour and water are added. By hand, the mixture is, as the name implies, twisted and twirled, so that each burghul grain is covered in a thin layer of the flour and water. This process is repeated, and the grains become bigger as each new layer is added. North African couscous is a very similar product that is made in an almost identical manner. Couscous, however, is significantly smaller than the small pea-sized maftoul, as it is made from a finer semolina. Obviously, all these products involve wheat, so traditional maftoul or couscous is not gluten-free, but more on that later.

On the subject of names…. Maftoul has been globally marketed, both commercially and politically, as “Israeli couscous.” There is no such thing as Israeli couscous; the name itself is ridiculous. The word couscous is derived from the indigenous Berber languages of North Africa. This name, not being Arabic (or Hebrew, for that matter), has never been used to describe any food native to the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; there is nothing called couscous there. In fact, you’d have to travel about 2,000 miles to the west to find the home of couscous. So the naming of maftoul as Israeli couscous is a ludicrous, deliberate attempt to erase the Palestinian origins of this purely Palestinian food.

Back to cooking…. There is no gluten-free alternative to Palestinian maftoul. So what is this gluten-intolerant Palestinian girl to do? Luckily, there is a gluten-free alternative to its sister product, the more widely known North African couscous. Click here to go to Lundberg’s organic, brown rice couscous. Really, it’s brown rice that has been roasted and cracked to the size of couscous, but it makes a wonderful alternative to use for cooking maftoul. (I found that it tastes very similar to burghul, so I will be experimenting with it for a gluten-free alternative to burghul dishes.)

First, cook some dry chickpeas (preferably organic, like the ones I used). Follow the package directions for the initial soaking (be it the overnight or 1-hour method), and then add them to boiling water and just let them cook until tender. You will add them to the chicken later. (Should you be in a pinch, you can use rinsed canned chickpeas.)

Second, while the chickpeas are cooking, you’ll prepare the chicken. Get some organic, free range chicken. I bought a package that contained some chicken breasts and drumsticks, but you can use a whole chicken or any parts you like. However, because you are making a stock, chicken on the bone is preferable. I boiled the breasts in some water, but did not add any other ingredients until I was able to skim off all the foamy albumin that rises to the top when boiling chicken. Once that was done, I added whole allspice and cardamom, ground turmeric, roughly chopped onion, a few whole garlic cloves, a handful of parsley, freshly cracked black pepper, and sea salt. As this broth cooked, I browned the drumsticks (not seen in these photos) in a skillet, and then added some of the broth to the skillet and let them braise. When both the chicken and its broth, as well as the chickpeas, were all cooked through, I added the chickpeas and some of the water they cooked in to the boiling pot of chicken, and let everything cook together.

Third, once the braising chicken and the boiling chicken are almost done cooking, cook the Lundberg rice couscous according to the package directions. I suggest you use at least some broth instead of water when cooking the couscous, to give it a richer flavor and color.

Finally, serve this gluten-free version of Palestinian maftoul by plating the couscous, then pouring over it some of the chicken broth and chickpeas, and topping it with your cooked chicken. Enjoy your Palestinian meal!