In the heart of Istanbul’s Little Syria, Jihad Al Ahdab sells groceries for the homesick. Jihad’s market offers an array of ingredients crucial to every Syrian household: drawers of cardamom pods and ground coriander, racks of ghee in tin cans stacked like motor oil, and sacks of molokhiyya – known in English as jute or Jews Mallow, a dried bitter green leaf fried and then stewed into tenderness.
And while Jihad seeks to serve the city’s ballooning Syrian refugee population, he also wants to get Turkish locals familiar with Syrian food. “We have been getting more and more Turkish customers. They’re becoming interested in our food,” Jihad said. “We made maqlubeh for our landlord once.” The dish, whose name means “upside down” in Arabic, consists of fried eggplant and cauliflower, poached chicken and rice layered into the same pot and flipped over. “Now we have to make it for him every week! He loves it!” Jihad laughed.
The layers of vegetables, meat and rice neatly stacked, topped with raw almonds and pine nuts toasted in browned butter looks complicated, but looks can be deceiving. Maqlubeh is very simple to make and can be defined as a one-pot meal. This hearty combination of eggplants, chicken and rice cooked in broth is a perfect main dish and is often topped with a yogurt-cucumber sauce.
2 chicken breasts and 2 chicken thighs, or one whole chicken if you’re making the broth from scratch
3 tsp seven-spice
5 pods cardamom
5 whole cloves
5 whole peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced or mashed
1 onion, quartered
4 cups broth
3 medium eggplants, or 2 large ones (See note)
2 cups Basmati rice
Cucumber-mint yogurt sauce
1 cup cucumber, small dice
2 cups yogurt
1 tsp dried crushed mint
1 tsp salt
½ cup raw pine nuts and almonds
2 tbsp butter
If you’re making your own broth with a whole chicken, follow the instructions below to include the onion, garlic and spices and cover the chicken with water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for one hour. To make a more concentrated stock, remove the chicken from the bones (it’ll come off easily) and return the bones to the liquid and continue to simmer one more hour.
If you have ready-made broth, you can poach two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs. Sprinkle salt, pepper and 1 tsp all spice on the front and back of each chicken piece. Drizzle a little olive oil at the bottom of a pot and saute quartered onion on medium-high heat. Once it starts going translucent, add chicken and briefly sear each side. Add the cardamom, cloves, peppercorn (I usually put these first three in a tea infuser), cinnamon stick, bay leaf and garlic. Cover with water so that there’s about an inch of water above the chickens. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down and cover. Let it simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.
While the chicken is simmering, soak two cups of rice in room temperature water and set aside. Slice the eggplants into rounds at least 1 cm thick. Lay them out on paper towels in a single layer and sprinkle a light layer of salt on each side. Set aside to let them sweat a little.
The chicken is done when a meat thermometer reads 165 F (74 C) in the thickest part and the meat inside is totally opaque.
When done, move the chicken pieces into a bowl. Remove and discard the spices and reserve the liquid by pouring it through a fine mesh-sieve into a bowl or container. Discard anything left in the sieve.
To shred the chicken, use a cake mixer on medium to medium-high speed until it’s shredded to your liking. You can also pull the chicken apart using two forks. (Or your hands!) Set aside.
Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a pan. Press dry paper towels into the eggplants to soak up any water. Add the eggplants to the hot oil in a single layer and lightly brown on either side. The eggplants shouldn’t cook all the way through – that’ll happen in the pot with the rice and chicken. Remove to a plate or tray covered in paper towels to soak up the oil.
In a large pot, coat the bottom with a little olive oil. Place eggplant pieces side by side to cover the bottom of the pot. Continue stacking the eggplant slices until you run out, filling in any gaps. (When cauliflower is available, a lot of Syrian families use alternating layers of cauliflower and eggplants.)
Next, add the shredded chicken, spreading it out in an even layer.
Drain the rice into a sieve over the sink, and rinse once or twice, until the water comes out clear through the sieve. Add the rice to the pot and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons seven-spice. Turn the stove to medium-high.
Pour 4 cups broth into the pot – it should be a little visible over the rice. If you have pre-made broth, you can use a combination of the liquid reserved from poaching the chicken and the broth you already have ready (about 2 cups each).
Bring to a boil and let the liquid evaporate off the top. You’ll see little dimples form in the top of the rice. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot with a towel or paper towels and then with the top of the pot. Allow everything to steam for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, you can make the cucumber-yogurt sauce.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine 2 cups yogurt and 1 cup small-diced cucumber. Add 1 teaspoon dried cracked mint and 1 teaspoon salt and mix thoroughly. Make sure to taste and add salt, mint or yogurt as needed.
Taste-test the rice to make sure it’s done. There shouldn’t be any remaining liquid and the rice should be fully tender, but not mushy.
Next comes the hard part: take a large serving dish and place it over the pot. Make sure you have a good grip and gently flip everything over, so that the plate is on the bottom and the pot is upside down on top. Fight the urge to remove the pot immediately. Let it sit upside down for about five minutes.
Heat 2 tbsp butter in a pan and add the nuts. Gently saute until the nuts get a rich, golden color. Remove from heat.
Slowly, gently slide the pot off the rice. Ideally, everything will come out and you’ll have a beautiful tower of layered vegetables, chicken and rice. But that doesn’t always happen, and that’s okay! If you end up with a layer of eggplants stuck to the bottom of the pot, scrape them off and spread them over the top of the chicken. Then, sprinkle toasted nuts on top.
To serve, distribute into bowls and drizzle yogurt-cucumber sauce on top.
Note: I like to add a layer of crispy-fried or caramelized onions with the eggplants and chicken. Some people add crispy onions on top, along with the nuts. Either or both make great, flavorful additions. Also, the vegetables aren’t strict here: you can get creative! Eggplant is almost always included, but as you can see, I added zucchini to the mix since cauliflower isn’t available in Istanbul.