Malfouf–the Rice and Roll of the Middle East

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Malfouf, lamb and rice stuffed cabbage rolls. Photo courtesy of ArabAmerica.com
Malfouf, lamb and rice stuffed cabbage rolls. Photo courtesy of ArabAmerica.com

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Malfouf–the Rice and Roll of the Middle East

Published courtesy of ArabAmerica.com

Malfouf--the Rice and Roll of the Middle East
Malfouf, lamb and rice stuffed cabbage rolls. Photo courtesy of ArabAmerica.com

By Blanche Shaheen

Arab America Contributing Writer

The word “malfouf” in Arabic means both “cabbage” and “rolled.” So in Arab culture, cooks must have felt that it was only natural to roll up the cabbage around rice, and the popular dish malfouf was born.

Stuffed cabbage leaves are popular in so many countries, from Russia to Poland and Sweden. But for some reason, Middle Eastern people feel the need to stuff every vegetable imaginable – eggplant, squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes and, of course, cabbage all get the rice-filling treatment.

As a child growing up, I didn’t think there was any other way to eat cabbage, because to me, malfouf was the ultimate comfort food. Tender leaves filled with aromatic rice, herbs, and either lamb or chickpeas was one of my favorite afterschool meals.

I attended an Irish Catholic elementary school growing up, so St. Patrick’s Day was a huge celebration with heaps of corned beef and cabbage served to all at fundraisers. While I enjoyed the corned beef, the Middle Eastern in me thought the plain steamed cabbage on the side looked kind of lonely compared with the stuffed cabbage I grew up with.

So one day I brought some malfouf to my Irish friends at school to show them a new way with cabbage. They loved it so much that they were willing to trade their mothers’ homemade Irish soda bread for some malfouf rolls. I absolutely loved those cross-cultural food swaps – to this day I still crave that soft Irish soda bread.

To make this meal vegan and Lent-friendly, my mother, Vera, created her own version of malfouf using chickpeas rather than the traditional cubes of lamb for the filling. The chickpeas almost melt like butter in your mouth when cooked in a pot for an hour with the other ingredients. There are so many herbs and spices in this recipe that I guarantee you won’t miss the meat. This dish is also fun to assemble with children – the bonus is kids are more apt to try new foods they help prepare in the kitchen.

Malfouf rolls make a pretty and elegant presentation for Easter as well. You can either invert the pot like an upside-down cake or line up the rolls individually on an oblong serving platter.

Here’s a video tutorial of this recipe:


MAMA VERA’S MALFOUF ROLLS

  • 1 cup rice
  • 1/2 cup garbanzo beans
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup green onion, minced
  • 1/2 cup tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

Preparing malfouf in a pot

  • 6 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
  • 1 large head green cabbage
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Boil water in a pot large enough to fit a large head of cabbage. Place cabbage in a pot of boiling water approximately 10 minutes. Using large tongs, rotate cabbage in water to ensure that all the sides are softened. Very carefully remove outer layers of cabbage one by one and set aside in colander over a bowl so they can drain. Make sure that leaves are intact and not torn. Repeat until every leaf is removed.

For stuffing, combine all ingredients from rice to minced garlic. Lay each cabbage leaf separately on cutting board and cut out thick membrane of each leaf (you might have to cut cabbage leaf in half). A 5-inch square of cabbage leaf is ideal to start rolling. Spread 1 heaping tablespoon stuffing along the edge of the leaf, then roll it slowly and tightly all the way until it looks like a cigar.

In large, deep cooking pot, line up rolls horizontally, layer by layer. Between each layer, nestle a few slivered cloves of garlic between rolls. Place greener rolls on bottom and lighter-colored rolls on top, because green ones take longer to cook and require a little more heat. Pour just enough water into the pot of cabbage rolls to cover top layer. Sprinkle top with juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt to taste.

Place the pot over medium heat until water boils.  Cover pot, reduce heat to minimum and let simmer for approximately 1 hour or until rice is fully cooked.

Serve hot with extra lemon wedges.

Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, food writer, and host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond  You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv    Her recipes can also be found at https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/

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