Maftool, gorgeous caviar-sized pearls made of whole wheat, is one of the most distinctively Palestinian dishes you will come across. The word maftool simply means “rolled” in Arabic and refers to the way flour is rolled around small bulgur grains to arrive at these beautiful pearls. In northern Palestine, where my father is from, people tend to make the balls slightly larger and call them “moghrabieh” (literally: of the Maghreb) probably a reference to North African couscous, which is similarly prepared albeit substantially smaller.
In the center and south of Palestine, maftool are made as small as Ossetra caviar, so bigger than couscous but smaller than moghrabieh. They are normally cooked by steaming them over a boiling pot of broth, with dough used to seal the edge of the pot to fully trap steam and ensure the maftool cook evenly. In this recipe, I have settled on a combined simmer-and-steam method that is easier and quicker than steaming alone, but still gives you fluffy and separate grains. The key is to let the cooked maftool rest in the residual steam after all the liquid has been absorbed, much like a pot of rice.
The most traditional way to serve maftool is with a brothy stew that includes onions, chickpeas, and chicken, and frequently seasoned with caraway. Not everyone uses caraway seeds to flavor the broth (it tastes perfectly delicious without it), but it is the signature spice of this dish for many Palestinians. In different parts of the country, like the one my mother is from, butternut squash or pumpkin cubes are a common component in the broth, their sweetness a perfect contrast to the otherwise earthy and warm notes of this dish. Some people add tomato paste to the broth, while others cook the pearls directly in a tomato broth and serve it up almost like a risotto. But the version with onion, chickpeas, and chicken is the gold standard.
The stock used to both cook the maftool and act as the brothy stew is typically made by boiling chicken with spices and aromatics. The cooked chicken can then be shredded and served over the maftool with some of the broth ladled on top. I personally prefer to roast the chicken in the oven instead of just boiling it, because it adds another layer of flavor and texture to the dish.
Growing up, I used to watch my grandmother and her sisters preparing maftool. The lady preparing it would be seated on the floor with a giant bowl in her lap, a jug of water on the left and a bowl of flour on the right. She would start with some grains of bulgur in the bowl to which she would add flour and a sprinkling of water before starting to roll with her palms, a subtle dance that magically made beautiful pearls appear. A large flat strainer called a gherbal would then be used to separate the grains that had become the right size from the smaller ones which would return to the bowl where the dance continued. These pearls would then be steamed and dried to be stored for use throughout the year. Where refrigeration was common, the steamed pearls could be frozen after steaming without drying, for much quicker cooking later on.
It can take time, practice, and the right equipment to make good homemade maftool, so the best option for most, and what I’m instructing in this recipe, is to purchase dried maftool, available most Middle Eastern grocery stores as well as online (look for brands like Canaan and Les Moulins Mahjoub). But if for any reason you cannot access it, Italian fregola sarda, Moroccan giant/pearl couscous and even, in a pinch, bulgur alone can work as substitutes. While the springy texture and nutty flavor might not be exactly the same, it’ll be close enough to be very enjoyable. But it is worth the effort to seek out true maftool—nothing else will quite capture the way the pearls of maftool roll around in your mouth in between bites of sweet butternut and hearty chickpeas.
For the Spiced Chicken Stock: In a large pot or stockpot of boiling water, boil chicken for 2 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter, discard water and wash and dry pot. Add olive oil to pot and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, salt, caraway, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, tomato paste, and bay leaf and stir until the onion starts to soften and the spices become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add 2 quarts (1.9L) water along with the reserved chicken and bring to a boil, skimming any foam from the surface, then lower heat to maintain a simmer and cook until chicken is fully cooked but not falling apart, about 1 hour. Carefully remove the chicken, making sure to keep the pieces intact, and set skin side up on a rimmed baking sheet. Strain stock, discarding solids.
For the Butternut Squash Broth: In a Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add sliced onions and cook, stirring often, until softened and golden brown at the edges, about 5 minutes. Stir in butternut squash and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Add the 1 quart (1L) spiced chicken stock along with the chickpeas, bring to a simmer, then continue to cook at a simmer until butternut squash is tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
Meanwhile, for the Maftool: In a 3- or 4-quart pot, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat until butter is melted. Add the maftool and cook, stirring, until it smells lightly toasted but hasn’t darkened in color, about 5 minutes. Add the 2 1/4 cups (532ml) spiced chicken stock, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and bring to a simmer. Lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, covered, until the maftool has absorbed most of the liquid (see package directions for recommended cooking times). Remove from heat, insert a paper towel or clean kitchen towel under the lid, and let stand 15 minutes.
For the Chicken: Turn on broiler and set oven rack to the second-highest position. In a small bowl, stir together olive oil, tomato paste, and yogurt until thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper. Spread yogurt mixture all over skin side of reserved chicken, then broil until the skin is a golden brown, about 5 minutes (note broiling times can vary depending on strength of broiler; keep a close eye on the chicken as it broils).
To serve, fluff up the maftool with a fork and spoon onto a large serving platter. Ladle some of the butternut squash over it with enough broth to moisten without the maftool becoming soupy. Top with the chicken pieces and serve with bowls of the butternut squash broth on the side.
Dutch oven, 3- or 4-quart pot
Maftool is becoming more widely available in supermarkets and online, but if you are unable to find it, you can substitute it with fregola sarda, giant couscous, or even very coarse-grain bulgur, following package instructions for cooking times in each case.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The butternut squash broth and the maftool can be refrigerated separately for up to 3 days. The chicken is best enjoyed the day it is prepared, but leftover chicken can be shredded and added to the broth before refrigerating.
To reheat, add a ladleful of broth to the pot of maftool and warm on the stove over low heat. Alternatively, use a microwave.
Bring the remaining broth back to a boil before serving; the leftover shredded chicken can be reheated in the broth.